Interdisciplinary research on COVID-19 impact

Mother holding sleeping baby.Fifteen faculty and graduate student researchers from multiple colleges and campuses across the University recently joined forces to form the WSU COVID‑19 Infant, Maternal, and Family Health Research Collaborative.

Spanning a variety of disciplines, including biological sciences, anthropology, and psychology, the collective already has a half dozen studies lined up to address critical questions related to the impact of COVID‑19 on the health of mothers, babies, and families.

Studies have shown when women experience high levels of stress during pregnancy it has long‑term effects on the fetus, the baby, as the baby develops, and in generations to come, said Celestina Barbosa‑Leiker, vice chancellor for research for WSU Health Sciences Spokane.

One of the collaborative’s first projects is a multi‑institutional research study looking at the role of infant feeding which recently received a rapid funding grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We are exploring how maternal COVID‑19 infection is related to overall breastmilk composition and infant health and wellbeing, and specifically, the potential protective effects of breastfeeding during this time, ” said lead investigator Courtney Meehan, associate professor of anthropology. With the varying recommendations currently being put forward by agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and UNICEF, “it is essential that we get this information quickly and accurately so we can better inform the public, as well as those who create policy,” she continued.

The WSU team will be collaborating with researchers at the University of Idaho, University of Washington, and Tulane University to address these questions, collecting data from postpartum women in Washington, Idaho, and elsewhere in the nation who have been diagnosed with COVID‑19 within the past seven days. They are getting ready to distribute sample collection kits that participants will use to submit breast milk, stool, and blood samples and hope to have preliminary study results available sometime later this year.

Other research projects that will be conducted by the collaborative include:

  • a study that measures cortisol levels in hair to measure pandemic-related stress in pregnant women and its effects on stress responsiveness in babies, led by Erica Crespi, an assistant professor in the WSU School of Biological Sciences
  • a study focused on the relationship between COVID‑19 related stress and the birth experience, the quality of the mother-infant relationship, and mother and infant stress and coping, led by Sara Waters, an assistant professor of human development at WSU Vancouver, with Crespi and Masha Gartstein, a professor in the Department of Psychology.
  • a survey designed to measure mental health, stress, health behaviors, substance use, and food insecurity in pregnant women during the COVID‑19 pandemic, led by Barbosa‑Leiker.

“Our goal is to identify the knowledge and resources that could help pregnant and postpartum women cope with all of the unique stressors they are facing right now so that we can secure the health of moms and babies,” said Barbosa‑Leiker.

“As a land‑grant university, WSU focuses much of its research enterprise on initiatives and projects that address the societal needs that impact our state,” said John Roll, associate vice president for strategic research initiatives for WSU Health Sciences and co‑lead of WSU’s academic and research response to the COVID‑19 pandemic. “The new COVID‑19 Infant and Maternal Health Research Collaborative is a prime example of how our researchers are pivoting their work to gain new knowledge that will help Washingtonians during this pandemic.

Top image: Stock photo of mother and baby

By Judith Van Dongen, WSU Health Sciences Spokane