Study into mother-baby bonding a winning thesis

Kelli MacMillan at desk

A Murdoch University student who is researching the bond between mothers and their newborn babies, has excelled in presenting her thesis in just three minutes.

After winning the Murdoch competition, registered psychologist Kelli MacMillan traveled to Queensland to compete in the Asia Pacific Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) final last week.

While not successful overall, Ms MacMillan said the experience of being among the 58 finalists from many different Australian and Asian universities and across disciplines, was “wonderful”.

The 3MT is an academic competition that challenges PhD and Professional Doctorate students to describe their research within three minutes to a general audience. The competition celebrates the discoveries made by research students and encourages their skill in communicating the importance of their research to the broader community.

A new mother herself, Ms MacMillan is passionate about exploring the bonds between new mothers and their babies and investigating the reasons why some mothers and babies fail to develop a securely attached relationship.

“This topic is very meaningful to me. In my clinical experience, I have observed a common thread in people experiencing psychological distress, and that is the description of a fractured relationship with their mother, or in some cases, the absence of an identifiable and secure caregiver,” Ms Macmillan said.

“Information from this research might help us to identify those mothers and babies who might be at risk of struggling to develop that early bond, so that the trajectory for that mother and child might be different.”

Working under supervision of Associate Professor Andrew Lewis and Professor Megan Galbally, Ms MacMillan’s Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology is part of a longitudinal study for the Mercy Pregnancy and Emotional Wellbeing Study (MPEWS), which is run out of Mercy Hospital in Melbourne.

For Ms MacMillan, this has included the assessment of  more than 200 mothers and their six-month-old babies in an interaction of at least 30 minutes, using ‘Emotional Availability Scales’ for which she has been trained and accredited by international leader in the attachment  field, Zeynep Biringen.

“Through the study, we have identified three factors leading to the formation of the early mother-baby relationship; maternal depression, maternal trauma and maternal social support, and these are being investigated in separate studies,” Ms MacMillan said.

Ms MacMillan hopes the outcomes of this research, due for completion next year, will assist those who are experiencing difficulties in bonding with their babies.

“Our research will help in two ways: first, to identify mothers and babies who might be at risk of experiencing difficulties in their early relationship. And second, to inform clinical interventions, so the likelihood of that mother and baby failing to form a securely attached relationship is reduced,” she said.

“For example, in a clinical intervention you might help a mother to read their baby's signals more accurately so that the mother is able to respond in an effective way, thereby facilitating an opportunity for connection between the mother and child.

“We don't want to wait until the adolescent and their mother appear for services access. We want to do something at the beginning of their journey together. Imagine the possibilities if we are able to prepare mothers for the parenting side of motherhood, just as we do for the physical side of the birth.”

Ms MacMillan wants to use the $2,500 travel grant she received for winning the Murdoch 3MT title towards promoting her findings to an international audience.

Posted on:

1 Oct 2018

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