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New research focused on women's mental health during pregnancy and post-birth


The research project aims to provide sleep and circadian health information and education during perinatal stages of pregnancy (Image credit Freepik).



Associate Professor Leigh Signal.

Massey University’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre’s Associate Professor Leigh Signal has just been granted almost $30,000 in funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand to further her research to improve perinatal mental health in New Zealand.  

The grant is one of 32 research grants announced as part of the council’s new Health Delivery Research portfolio.

Dr Signal will lead a team of 10 academics, including five from Massey University, to create a project application to achieve their key aim of providing sleep and circadian health education and intervention to New Zealand women during the perinatal stages of pregnancy, that is between 22 weeks and seven days after the baby is born.

The funding gives the team time to complete important activities to support the development of this project, she says.

“We’re really committed to is making sure that women in the perinatal period have good quality sleep information because we believe it will also have a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Our end goal is to get really fabulous, effective information out to all New Zealand women in the perinatal period about sleep and mental health.”

She believes this research is necessary to help address the inequities in mental health between Māori and non-Māori and she says for many women, the perinatal period is a time when current and future mental health can be markedly altered. Research shows higher rates of depressive symptoms in pregnancy for Māori women (22 per cent) compared to non-Māori (15 per cent).

“We don’t think we’re going to fix all mental health concerns, but for people who have mild or moderate symptoms then we’re hoping this will be a resource and information that will help them normalise changes to their sleep and where possible improve their sleep. This will hopefully also then circumvent the development and the worsening of mental health issues.”

Instead of trying to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, Dr Signal says they are trying to build the barrier at the top of the cliff to provide support to women during this period.

“You go searching for information and you find a lot of poor-quality information on the internet so it’s being able to have accessible, accurate, sensible information available to all New Zealand women.” 

The groups research approach will reflect the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the activation activities will be undertaken in partnership with Māori health researchers, clinicians, and health service delivery organisations and wāhine Māori. The team’s research expertise spans sleep, maternal mental health and Māori and Pacific health.  

Their research will be undertaken over 12 months, in three parts. 

They will begin by carrying out a review of the existing literature to make sure they know what previous researchers have done into intervention for sleep and circadian health in the perinatal period. 

Then they will use existing connections and networks to gain an understanding of who is providing services and what information is being given. 

Dr Signal says they will be looking at these services and information both within New Zealand and Australia and using input from academics in the team who are from Australian agencies. 

The final phase will bring together their knowledge and research to design a health delivery project which they will present to the Health Research Council in a future funding round.  

Dr Signal says the current funding will allow them to have more time and resources that will support a better-quality application while bringing together a unique group of people to build their networks further.

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