An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine has been awarded nearly $900,000 in federal funding to identify and address the needs of mothers with medically fragile infants, a vastly understudied group.
The UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health, directed by Dr. Sarah Verbiest, a clinical associate professor with UNC’s School of Social Work, received the funding for Care4Moms, a three-year study that will collect data on the postpartum period for mothers with hospitalized infants. Based on that data, researchers will offer participating mothers recommendations for targeted support programs, with the hopes of improving health outcomes for the mothers, their medically fragile infants and future pregnancies.
“The birth of a medically fragile baby can have significant impacts on a family, including relationship stress, depression, economic hardship, and overall health,” said Verbiest, co-investigator of the Care4Moms study. “Further, moms who have medically fragile infants may have existing health conditions or life circumstances that are challenging. There is a cost in neglecting the high-risk mom/baby relationship.”
For social workers, in particular, researchers think this study can help practitioners better understand the needs of these moms so that “better systems of care” can be created for them, Verbiest added.
“From a life course perspective, this project offers an opportunity to impact two generations,” she said.
Currently, limited research exists on the health care needs of mothers with fragile or hospitalized babies during the postpartum period. Moreover, little has been done to collect the perspectives of OB-GYN and neonatal care providers about their own roles in addressing the additional needs of these specific groups of mothers.
Dr. Alison Stuebe, an associate professor of maternal-fetal medicine at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the UNC School of Medicine and Distinguished Scholar of Infant and Young Child Feeding in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, is Care4Mom’s lead investigator. That mothers with hospitalized infants often face additional challenges in the postpartum period point to a need for targeted postpartum health care, she said.
“Mothers of medically fragile infants must recover from birth while at the bedside of a critically ill newborn,” Stuebe said. “These challenges are compounded by the fact that data suggest these women are more likely to have birthed by C-section and experienced complications and may have underlying chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Moreover, many mothers of medically fragile infants live hours away from where their infants are hospitalized.”
Care4Moms will conduct a retrospective analysis of about 7,000 mothers of infants born at N.C. Women’s Hospital over a two-year period. The study will compare how mothers with medically fragile infants use health care resources compared to that of mothers with infants in the well-baby nursery.
To complement the analysis, researchers will interview new mothers with medically fragile infants to understand their self-described health needs and postpartum recovery experiences, as well as their experiences in accessing care. The team will also conduct interviews with providers in the UNC Health Care system to learn their perspectives on the services currently offered for mothers and the services they feel should be available.
The Care4Moms study adds to UNC-Chapel Hill’s growing body of research on the health care needs of postpartum mothers during what is known as the fourth trimester. Verbiest is the Principle investigator on the 4th Trimester Project, which seeks to bring together mothers, health care providers and other stakeholders to define unmet health care needs in the first three months after a mother gives birth.
This study was supported by grant R40MC29455 Maternal and Child Health Research Program, Maternal and Child Health Bureau (Title V, Social Security Act), Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services.
The Center for Maternal and Infant Health is a joint program of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Department of Pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine. The Center is dedicated to improving preconception health and reproductive life planning attitudes, behaviors, resources and services for men, women and families. The Center’s clinical work focuses on helping patients with high-risk pregnancies and families with medically fragile infants to navigate a complex health care system, working with them to make sure they are receiving the best care available.
Media contact: Courtney Mitchell, Courtney.Mitchell@unchealth.unc.edu, (919) 843-4327.