To understand obesity rates among pregnant women, Sharon Herring went to the people who know pregnancy best: mothers.
After graduating from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine in 2002 and a finishing her residency at NYU, Herring returned to the Temple University community in 2009 to begin working with low-income pregnant women. When mothers told her the times when they began struggling with weight, Herring realized pregnancy was a common cause.
Herring, an associate professor of medicine, obstetrics and reproductive sciences and clinical sciences, now creates technology-focused programs that help mothers lose weight. Last September, Herring and her research team received a five-year, $3.47 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases for their program that helps Black and Hispanic mothers monitor their weight post-pregnancy.
“We’ve learned over the years weight is just one issue, it’s not everything in these women’s lives,” Herring said. “Living in poverty is really challenging. With multiple jobs, it’s really hard to be able to have the time to prepare the meals and be thoughtful about that.”
In partnership with Women, Infants and Children, a federal grant program that provides food for low-income women and children, the team will study an intervention system that uses social media and texting, among other platforms, to motivate and observe the progress of new mothers.
Jane F. Cruice, a clinical research nurse who worked with Herring on earlier studies, believes the program is effective because the participants are already used to using social media.
“Most of our moms are using their phones, so if it’s already right there in their hands, we can seize that moment and try to connect with them where they’re already checking in on Facebook,” Cruice said. “If you meet folks where they are, you’re more likely to get a positive effect.”
Participating moms received a scale that automatically connects to Wi-Fi and sends weight data to Herring’s team. If participants are interested in viewing a graph of their progress, they can text “GRAPH” to the researchers.
“Technology has a place in health care delivery,” Cruice said. “To be able to have it right there at your fingertips can be of use for anyone at any socioeconomic level.”
The team mostly texts participants, but they also monitor sugary drink intake and other behaviors in a private Facebook group called “Pregnant Moms Temple.” Trained behavioral coaches also call participants for 15 minutes every week.
Herring said participating mothers are generally too busy to track calories in traditional methods like food journaling. Instead, participants try to modify one behavior at a time with the coaches.
“Calories make you think of everything at one time,” Herring said. “Sometimes it’s hard for our moms in their complicated lives. Sometimes it’s a little easier to focus on just sugary drinks for one month.”
Herring has experience using social media to connect with new mothers. Her #Snapback 2015 campaign focused on returning mothers to their baseline weight after birth to prevent second pregnancy complications like hypertension and diabetes.
Gina Tripicchio, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences, also uses health technology in her own research on obesity prevention in pediatrics. She feels pregnancy is a key moment in the life cycle for health behavior interventions.
“Pregnancy is an opportune time to intervene to get moms to change their behaviors,” Tripicchio said. “Because they go from being adults that don’t have anybody else to being pregnant, it can be a very overwhelming time, but it can also be a time amenable to change. They feel particularly motivated.”
Herring hopes #BabyBeHealthy will motivate mothers to take care of their whole household’s future health, including children and spouses.
“The thought is, ‘Can you affect multiple generations by targeting this period in the life?’” Herring said.