Physical, sexual and social health factors associated with the trajectories of maternal depressive symptoms from pregnancy to 4 years postpartum
BACKGROUND In the first year after childbirth, 94% of women experience one or more major health problems (urinary incontinence, faecal incontinence, perineal pain, back pain). Difficulties in intimate partner relationships and changes affecting sexual health are also common. The aim of this study is to investigate changes in women's health from early pregnancy until four years after the birth of a first child. METHODS/DESIGN The Maternal Health Study is a longitudinal study designed to fill in some of the gaps in current research evidence regarding women's physical and psychological health and recovery after childbirth. A prospective pregnancy cohort of >1500 nulliparous women has been recruited in early pregnancy at six metropolitan public hospitals in Melbourne, Australia between April 2003 and December 2005. In the first phase of the study participants are being followed up at 30-32 weeks gestation in pregnancy, and at three, six, nine, 12 and 18 months postpartum using a combination of self-administered questionnaires and telephone interviews. Women consenting to extended follow-up (phase 2) will be followed up six and 12 months after any subsequent births and when their first child is four years old. Study instruments incorporate assessment of the frequency and severity of urinary and bowel symptoms, sexual health issues, perineal and abdominal pain, depression and intimate partner violence. Pregnancy and birth outcome data will be obtained by review of hospital case notes. DISCUSSION Features of the study which distinguish it from prior research include: the capacity to identify incident cases of morbidity and clustering of health problems; a large enough sample to detect clinically important differences in maternal health outcomes associated with the method of birth; careful exposure measurement involving manual abstraction of data from medical records in order to explore mediating factors and possible causal pathways; and use of a variety of strategies to improve ascertainment of health outcomes.