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AHC Gamechanger: Rebecca Shlafer

Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., is conducting unique research in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota.

When people discuss incarcerated women, we tend to be curious about the crimes, the punishment and what prison they will be held in. Beyond all of that, many women in prisons are mothers, and some are even pregnant at sentencing.

The rate of maternal incarceration has nearly doubled over the last two decades, raising important questions. How are families bonding and being supported? Are mothers receiving proper care? Are babies born in these conditions getting the nutrition they need? Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, seeks to provide answers and spark the necessary change.

Shlafer has spent the last few years focusing in on Minnesota’s women’s prison in Shakopee to understand physical and mental health needs, especially among pregnant inmates. Unfortunately, what she and colleagues found was hindering both women and children’s ability to prosper.

“We discovered inmates expressing many concerns about their physical and mental health,” Shlafer said.  “One in three women in our sample reported having a chronic condition like asthma or diabetes, and two out of three women reported depressive symptoms in the clinical range. In addition, women, particularly those who were pregnant, reported concerns about what they were eating as prison food tends to be high in sodium, sugars and carbohydrates.”

Moving forward, the researchers want to delve into these diets and search for connections to malnutrition and other health complications for the fetus. All in all, Shlafer added, they want women to eat a balanced diet and produce a healthy fetus.

”One of the biggest predictors of fetal growth is pre-pregnancy weight and prenatal weight gain,” Shlafer said. “We want to identify and correct the dietary issues so we can start the babies off in the healthiest state possible.”

By breaking down and correcting the dietary issues among the mothers, Shlafer emphasized that the health of the infant would be improved. This, in turn, means better lives for the children and less burden on the health care system down the road.

In addition to her work with women in prison, Shlafer received the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine New Investigator award in 2012 for her efforts with a pregnancy prevention program for high-risk girls.

Rebecca Shlafer’s dedication to understanding the needs of women and girls is truly making an impact on lives in the region. Her driving philosophy of discovering and preventing now to ensure the betterment of all in the future is what makes her an AHC Gamechanger.

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