‘We’re doing very little to help mothers live their best breastfeeding lives’

18 Mar 2020

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Nutrition researcher Dr Sharleen O’Reilly of UCD is helping develop an app to tailor diets for mothers and their families.

After graduating from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in human nutrition and dietetics as well as a PhD, Dr Sharleen O’Reilly worked as a dietitian in Ireland and the UK before moving to Australia where she was a senior lecturer at Deakin University.

Now working at University College Dublin (UCD), O’Reilly is an assistant professor of nutrition and food science at the School of Agriculture and Food Science in UCD, and an active member of the UCD Institute of Food and Health and the UCD Perinatal Research Centre. She also holds an adjunct professor position at the Public Health Foundation of India and is an adjunct senior clinical lecturer at Deakin University.

Dr Sharleen O'Reilly smiling while wearing a black top and holding a tablet against a windowed background.

Dr Sharleen O’Reilly. Image: UCD

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was always a ‘but why?’ child and I clearly remember having my mother driven demented about why certain things were added to cooking or baking, what they did and what would happen if she forgot to put them in!

My food experiments became a source of dread in my house. Some were delicious but others, well, let’s just say even our dog turned her nose up at them!

Needless to say, over the years I became more curious about food and its role in health. When I went to secondary school, I knew I wanted to be part of the healthcare profession and dietetics seemed like a great fit for my passion for food and biology and chemistry.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am currently the lead on an EU Horizon 2020 five-year year project called Bump2Baby&Me. The project will run over five countries (Ireland, Spain, the UK, Denmark and Australia) and will see 800 women take part in an intervention that will start in pregnancy and run through to when her baby is one year old.

The intervention will be to provide the mothers with an app that supports them to make changes to their activity levels and eating habits. The app will have a real health coach attached to it and they will be able to help a mother at the right time with advice that is tailored for her and her young family.

The project evolved out of my work in Australia and Ireland. I can safely say that if I hadn’t been in Australia the project would never have been ‘born’. My school at Deakin University is internationally known for its nutrition and physical activity research and I had worked with two colleagues that developed an intervention called Infant.

At the same time, I was heavily involved in a diabetes prevention programme called Mothers After Gestational Diabetes in Australia and started working with a research team at Monash University on weight management after pregnancy.

When I moved back to Dublin in 2017, I joined the UCD Perinatal Research Centre, which had lots of experience working with mothers in pregnancy and doing interventions on eating and physical activity. Fast forward a year and I saw the call for the EU Horizon 2020 grants and thought it was right up my alley.

I started reaching out to all my contacts to see if they would be willing to contribute to the overall project idea. Everyone said yes, which was brilliant, and we went from there! We now have a great team of experts from a wide variety of backgrounds – health psychology, medicine, obstetrics, paediatrics, physiotherapy, dietetics, nutrition, health literacy, nursing, dissemination and app design.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Weight management is a critical part of having a healthy pregnancy and we know that one out of every two women are now entering pregnancy with a high body mass index (BMI). Having a higher weight in pregnancy is associated with risk of developing pregnancy and birth complications for both the mother and baby.

Higher BMI is also associated with less breastfeeding and increased risk of developing chronic disease in both mother and child later on. While our environment is a big factor in the ever-creeping weight of populations, we know that working with women that are at high risk is something that is cost-effective in terms of health spending.

The big problem health services face is that they are cash-strapped and need to be able to offer services in a way that is low cost. Bump2Baby&Me has the ability to be offered at larger scale and provide a service that is used by mothers to help them improve their health.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The area of health research is really competitive, so it can be a crowded environment that makes it difficult to be funded. There is a lot of activity within the mobile health space and the quality of the research is very varied, which can make people a little suspicious of your work. You often hear: ‘Oh, another app that does X…’.

Overall nutrition is another area where confusion has reigned, and this can limit how people look at your work. The other challenge I face is trying to juggle being a mother myself and an active researcher!

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Nutrition experts can’t make up their minds on what is a healthy food so ‘why bother’ is a common misconception. Nutrition experts can agree that there is such a thing as a healthy diet or dietary pattern, but eating one food once is not going to make a real impact on your health. As a result, my research focuses on dietary patterns that support a healthy weight.

‘Apps don’t work’ is another one. I agree with this and it is the same as taking a medicine – the tablets don’t work if you don’t take them!

The ‘human factor’ is something that I am really interested in and how it influences our behaviours. We know from different systematic reviews that interventions that work and used mobile health approaches had some human interaction to support their effectiveness. It is for this reason that Bump2Baby&Me has both an app and a real health coach.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see more research happening around implementation. We generally know what a healthy diet is, yet we can’t make it work at a population level.

Implementation science is the exploration of how we build a bridge between what we know works and getting it to work in the real world. This was the area that my Australian National Health and Medical Research Council fellowship covered and I would like to use this training to do more implementation research.

The other area that needs more attention especially in Ireland is breastfeeding. The impact of more breastfed babies is far-reaching, yet we are doing very little to help mothers live their best ‘breastfeeding lives’.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic