CQUni PhD research driving evidence-based guidelines to support athlete return after childbirth

29 November 2021

Female athletes are entitled to continue their sporting careers after having a baby – but Australia's sporting codes have limited policies to support a woman's return to sport postpartum.

It's a gap that peak sport bodies are keen to bridge – and CQUniversity researchers are working with the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) to design best practice guidelines to ensure new mums can continue their sport careers after childbirth.

PhD researcher Boden Tighe began the three-year project in October 2020 and will work alongside athletes' coaches and staff' to collaboratively develop postpartum return to sport and competition guidelines for high performance athletes.

"Within the sporting community' there's so much motivation around postpartum return' and it's important to get it right to ensure female athletes can trailblaze this stage of their careers'" he said.

"But there's not a lot of data on athletes who are mothers' so developing the guidelines really relies on the knowledge and input of female athletes' and their support teams' who have the insight and lived experience."

Boden's initial work has captured the growing number of female athletes who compete into motherhood – for instance' news articles reporting on pregnancy and childbirth within high-performance sport have become more prevalent suggesting that pregnancy and childbirth within sport is an increasing phenomenon.

It's also highlighted critical gaps where sport bodies have not supported women who have given birth. In one famous case' tennis star Serena Williams' world ranking fell to 453 during her maternity leave after having her daughter (the WTA has since given additional protections to the rankings of mothers.)

"You'll often see sport organisations treat pregnancy like an injury mostly because they are unsure what to do – but having a baby definitely isn't the same as an injury!" he said.

Next steps of the research will include focus groups and interviews with athletes and staff from the QAS' the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS)' and other national sporting organisations' to identify barriers and enablers to postpartum return to competition' and an organisational participatory research approach to developing the guidelines.

"Ideally' these guidelines will inform the QAS' AIS and other sport organisations to develop their own specific policies'" he said.

"We'll be looking at every aspect that affects an athlete's ability or decision to return' this can be physical' social' or practical things like availability of childcare' or supporting opportunities to be able to care' look-after and breastfeed their child/ren."

Boden's previous work saw him involved in cancer support and prevention campaigns such as the National Indigenous Bowel Screening Pilot but the PhD brings him back to his first passion of sport and fitness.

The former Rockhampton boy did his Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science at CQUniversity (2013)' and said it was his mum's passion for fitness that got him hooked.

"I'll never forget playing under-eight's rugby union' and the team couldn't find a coach' so my mum stepped up… it was an eye-opener to the ability and power of women in sport. Additionally' seeing my sister pursue a career in soccer and watching her navigate her life added to the importance of this research."

Since commencing the PhD research' another Rockhampton connection helped him realise the importance of the work' when cycling legend and Olympian Anna Meares visited the QAS.

"One thing that really stood out' as an athlete she had to choose between continuing her career and having a child' and because her career continued for so long' she never thought she would be a mother'" Boden said.

"At the time of her visit she was pregnant' and I'm so glad she's gone on to have two children.

"That really hit home' the idea that female athletes might have to choose between a baby and their career. They absolutely shouldn't have to choose."

Boden's PhD supervisor is CQUniversity's Dr Melanie Hayman' who is also a researcher on the Mum-Alete Project' an Australian-first study into the impacts of pregnancy and postpartum for elite female athletes' led by the AIS.