Better perinatal mental health for the whole family

Program Convenor for the Bachelor of Midwifery and Master of Midwifery Studies, Dr Eileen Dowse’s research is helping to discover how parents’ mental health affects their relationship with each other and their infants during those first critical years of life.

Image of Eileen Dowse

Dr Eileen Dowse’s practice-based research is focused on improving family relationships and perinatal mental health by understanding how they reciprocally influence each other. Working with mothers, fathers and infants, her research projects show how mental health during a baby’s first 2,000 days can have long-lasting and multi-faceted effects on family health and wellbeing.

“I am interested in creating partnerships in research that optimise maternal, paternal, child and family health. My research work focuses on both maternal and paternal perinatal mental health and its impact on the infant/child and co-parenting relationship.”

Bridging nursing and midwifery

Eileen’s career trajectory has been shaped by both personal and professional experience. After pursuing a successful nursing career for more than a decade, Eileen added midwifery to her skillset in the early-1990s. The dual registration gave her a broad woman- and family-centred approach to helping families adapt to one of the greatest changes they’ll ever face: the birth of a child.

“The birth of my own children inspired me to undertake midwifery and here I found my true passion, caring for women and babies. While managing the needs of my own growing family, I commenced my first taste of tertiary study undertaking a Diploma in Child and Family Health Nursing. My career has built significantly from there, taking me into my first lecturing role with the University of Newcastle in 2011.”

While practising as a registered nurse and midwife, Eileen’s interest was piqued by the questions left unanswered, propelling her into the world of research. Eileen’s PhD, completed in 2016, explored the factors that impact on the ability of Child and Family Health Nurses (CFHNs) to partner with families, especially mothers, within often busy and complex healthcare environments. The research built on her 2006 Master of Nursing - Research project exploring the value of new parent groups offered in the CFHN service.

“My findings for both studies suggest that it can be difficult for CFHNs—and likely other health professionals—to maintain a partnership-focused, woman-centred model of interaction with competing intra-personal, organisational and government agendas.”

Let’s hear it for the dads

Eileen’s latest research, a collaboration with the Australian Fatherhood Research Consortium, is more specifically focused on understanding what makes dads tick, delivering much-needed insights into the under-researched issue of paternal wellbeing and mental health.

The research collaboration is driving several cutting-edge projects related to fatherhood, mental health, coping and sleep. Eileen is a co-investigator on two systematic reviews, and leading an Australian multi-site study, all of which aim to understand, from the father’s perspective, the nature of fathers’ sleepin families with a child aged between six and 36 months, who has been identified as having night-time sleep problems, and its impact on mental health and family functioning. The findings from this study will help shape the delivery and content of sleep interventions for dads.

“Much less is known about fathers’ mental health and their transition to parenthood compared with mothers. There are also less support options available and no consistent screening or treatment approaches for paternal perinatal mental health concerns. My research collaboration with the Australian Fatherhood Research Consortium aims to address this imbalance.”

By informing more effective sleep interventions for dads, Eileen’s collaborative research projects will help build a foundation of knowledge that can support improved mental health and family functioning.

Delivering high-quality education

Eileen is a highly valued and skilled educationalist for the University’s undergraduate and postgraduate midwifery programs. In 2018, her commitment and contribution to advancing the programs were recognised with a place on the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Merit List for Teaching and Learning Excellence, which is based on exemplary program outcomes and student feedback.

“I enjoy working with both undergraduate and postgraduate students to navigate the complexities of their program and achieve success. Recruitment and retention of students is vital to the future of the national maternity workforce and the primary care of women and infants.

“It’s critical that our midwifery programs meet the needs of industry and our accrediting bodies and provide authentic, holistic experiences for our students.”

Eileen continuously researches ways to improve the quality and delivery of content for the University’s undergraduate and postgraduate midwifery students, ensuring that programs meet students’ evolving learning and career needs, as well as the demands of the future midwifery workforce. In 2018, Eileen helped drive a significant redesign of the Master of Midwifery Studies, which led to increased student enrolment and retention rates, and even prompted existing postgraduate students to switch into the revitalised program from other universities.

“My midwifery-focused research and higher degree supervision aim to improve the quality of the learning, teaching and clinical experiences of midwifery students who constitute our future workforce. The qualities, knowledge and skills of our graduates directly impact on the kind of care received by women and families and their outcomes during the childbearing continuum.”

Eileen’s love of research and life-long learning is infectious. Over the years, her example has inspired countless students to follow in her footsteps, contributing to a passionate and highly skilled midwifery workforce in Australia.

“I am humbled and gratified when a midwifery student, higher degree research candidate or graduate later tells me how something I said or did during my time with them influenced their decision to pursue research or a particular career path. That is wonderfully rewarding.

“I am very confident that midwifery work and research is in good hands with the high quality of our emerging new graduates and higher degree midwifery students. Our students are passionate advocates for the wellbeing of women and infants, and I am very glad to be able to play a small part in shaping their futures.”

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.