Athletes have tougher time in childbirth, study says

By Chelsea Wallis
3 June 2009 – Te Waha Nui

PhD candidate Shannon Li’s model highlights the mother’s muscles and the head of the baby during birth.

Athletes have a tougher time giving birth than non-athletes, according to new scientific data.

Researchers in the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) at the University of Auckland used MRI and ultrasound images of New Zealand women to build computer models of two hypothetical mothers giving birth to their first child.

In a simulation of natural delivery, the model of a woman involved in high-impact training spent more time in labour and required at least 40 per cent more force to push than the model of a non-athlete.

PhD candidate Shannon Li says: “An athlete’s increased muscle size and tone may contribute to birth complications.”

Li is developing the models to help physicians and new mothers decide between caesarean or natural birth.

The project was inspired three years ago by the research of Dr Jennifer Kruger, a recent graduate of the Department of Sport and Exercise Science, using her records of pelvic muscle images from women in netball, basketball, aerobics and horse riding.

Associate Professor Poul Nielsen says the models were then created with tools unique to ABI department that allow them to replicate soft organs and tissue mechanics.

Associate Professor Martyn Nash says it is difficult to get measurable information during labour because of ethical issues.

These models give that information without invasive tests on the mother and child.

He says the studies can help us understand risks on an individual basis and protect the mother from damage that can lead to prolapse and continence problems later in life.

“Data gathering is still in the modelling/hypothesis phase,” says Dr Nash.

“Not many people are conducting this sort of research, maybe two or three other groups.”

Li recently submitted her findings to two international conferences and expects to be in London and San Francisco to present her results in September 2009.

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