Top award for research helping pregnant women avoid stillbirths

Professor Lesley McCowan and colleagues won a prestigious award by helping pregnant women avoid stillbirths. Dr Karen Brewer got a top Māori research award.

Professor Lesley McCowan

Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Health Research Council handed out the research honours on 18 November.

Professor McCowan’s team are helping to reduce stillbirths in Aotearoa New Zealand and in countries including the UK and Australia after discovering that pregnant women shouldn't go to sleep lying on their backs in late pregnancy.

The team, awarded the Health Research Council’s Beaven Medal, includes Professors Edwin Mitchell and Peter Stone, Associate Professor John Thompson, Drs Robin Cronin, Minglan Li and Ngaire Anderson, and Ms Jessica Wilson.

Late stillbirth, from 28 weeks of pregnancy, affects about one in 400 pregnant women in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2011, PhD student Tomasina Stacey, who was supervised by Professors McCowan, Mitchell and Thompson, reported that women in New Zealand who went to sleep on their backs the night before they thought their baby died had a 2.5-fold increased risk of late stillbirth.

Lying on the back leads to significant compression of major blood vessels and reduced oxygen transfer through the placenta to the baby

Since a “sleep on side” campaign was launched in 2018, the percentage of pregnant women who report going to sleep on their backs in Aotearoa New Zealand has fallen, and late still births have declined.

Professor Stone led studies showing how lying on the back leads to significant compression of major blood vessels and reduced oxygen transfer through the placenta to the baby. Medical students Aimee Humphries and Sophie Couper conducted key research.

The team also found that women who usually went to slept lying on their backs gave birth to babies who were on average 144 grams lighter than the babies of women who didn’t, similar, Professor McCowan says, to the effect from smoking 10 cigarettes a day.

Māori speech-language therapy package

Dr Karen Brewer

Dr Brewer (Whakatōhea, Ngāi Te Rangi) won the early career Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award for Ngā Whāriki Kōrero, a kaupapa Māori speech-language therapy package for whānau with communication difficulties caused by stroke.

The approach marries “Talking Mats,” a communication tool developed in Scotland, with mātauranga Māori. People indicate preferences by where they place a bilingual picture card on a mat. This approach is now in use across Aotearoa New Zealand.

“I am pleased that there is now something that speech-language therapists can offer whānau Māori,” says Dr Brewer. “I also recognise that it is only a small step on a long journey towards culturally safe and equitable speech-language therapy services.”

She thanked her postdoctoral supervisors and collaborators Dr Matire Harwood and Dr Clare McCann and dedicated the award to Te Whaawhai Taki.

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