Mātai News

Study on sleeping positions in pregnancy being conducted at Mātai

The Gisborne Herald, 10 August 2022

Sophie Couper (pictured) is leading a study at Mātai Research Institute about the effects of maternal sleeping positions on oxygen delivery to the baby.

Ensuring mothers have safer pregnancies, healthier babies in the future and an improved understanding of stillbirth is the focus of a new study being conducted at Matai Research Institute.


The research on understanding the effects of maternal sleep position on oxygen delivery to the baby is a collaborative study being managed by researchers at Matai and the University of Auckland.


Gisborne project lead Sophie Couper said the study involved using MRI scans to see what happens to blood flow and oxygen movement around the placenta and to the baby when pregnant women are lying on their back, compared to lying on their left side.


“By understanding how blood and oxygen moves around the placenta in pregnancy we can better understand which babies and mothers might be more at risk of complications,” she said.


Ms Couper said earlier studies — which the University of Auckland was a part of — showed that women who slept on their back had increased risk of stillbirth at late pregnancy, compared with women who adopted other sleeping positions.


“Statistically, one in 340 babies born every year in New Zealand is stillborn in late pregnancy. The most common cause is suboptimal foetal growth,” said Ms Couper. “Hence, the need for this study.”


Seven local women have taken part in the research so far.


Ms Couper said women are eligible on the basis of some parameters such as being at least 20 weeks pregnant, having singleton (as opposed to twin) and healthy pregnancies, and small-for-gestational age pregnancies.


The one-off MRI scan, which is safe in pregnancy, is conducted at Gisborne Hospital.


During the scan the women lie in two different positions, on their back and left side, for a short time, Ms Couper said.


Researchers are using the lying position as a way of observing how the placenta and the baby adapts to the change.


Learning about such aspects could help identify ways to reduce complications and stillbirth. “One of the biggest things we can do in obstetrics is identify risk to optimise pregnancy care.”

Ms Couper, who is completing her final year of medical school at Auckland University this year, said the study was a continuation of her research thesis from 2019. She said with Gisborne having this new specialised research institute, her supervisors, based at the university, saw an excellent opportunity to expand their project, taking it out of Auckland. She took up a summer internship at Matai last year.


“It was about establishing a relationship and ensuring the project was something the community would be interested in. “The overall feedback was great and so we spent the beginning of this year setting up the project with key stakeholders in Gisborne and now we are running it.”


Ms Couper has iwi affiliations and connections to Wairoa. She spent the first half of her life in Tairāwhiti, before her family moved to Whanganui. For the past six years she has been completing a medical degree with the University of Auckland, and has just finished a year in Te Tai Tokerau, learning in their hospitals in Whangārei and Kaitaia.


After completing her subsequent placements in obstetrics and gynaecology, she “really enjoyed the experience”.


“It’s just through experience that I have really discovered my passion for women’s health.


“Research strengthened my passion and fascination for women’s and children’s health and a desire to use my education to lift health outcomes for Māori, particularly for wāhine Māori.”


“So being able to have the opportunity to take the research out of Auckland and bring it to Gisborne has been incredible for me and my own experience and discovering what I’m passionate about.”


To ask further questions about this study, or to receive further participant information, contact Ms Couper on 027 365 1981 or email at s.couper@matai.org.nz.