For years, pregnant people have been excluded from clinical research because it was considered unethical. At the same time, clinical research during pregnancy is essential to determine the effects of drugs or other medical interventions on the pregnant person, fetus, and newborn, so in some ways it could be considered unethical not to do research during pregnancy. Clinical research can also be observational—that is, you report your experience to researchers and they analyze whether that experience is associated with lifestyle or biological factors. In this post, we’ll discuss the types of research you can participate in during pregnancy and how to find studies.
In a study published in the journal Field Methods in 2011, researchers at the University of Michigan interviewed pregnant women about their motivations for participating in health research. “Women who deemed ‘contributing to science,’ ‘learning about pregnancy health,’ and ‘helping future patients’ as important motivations for participating in research were more likely to express willingness to participate in a study,” the authors wrote.  Indeed, all of these reasons for participating may be positive, but studies can also have benefits for participants, including receiving care they might not normally receive—such as the pregnant people who participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials and were thus protected from COVID-19—and monetary payments.
What kind of trials can I participate in during pregnancy?
Observational studies are probably the easiest for you to get involved with because they don’t require any changes to how you live your life. You enroll in the study and add in a few research visits—some of these might even be virtual—and perhaps fill out some online surveys or diaries. In observational studies, you don’t have to do things you wouldn’t typically do, such as take a new medication or eat a different food. These studies are extremely helpful because they allow research teams to gather data and make associations between your normal behaviors and pregnancy outcomes.
Randomized controlled trials (RCTs), on the other hand, require that there is a test group, in which participants receive the intervention, such as a drug or vaccine, and a control group, in which participants receive a control intervention, a saline injection or inert pill, for instance. Randomized means that the researchers assign participants to groups randomly. This type of trial allows researchers to make a determination about the effect of the intervention by comparing outcomes in the control group to those in the test group. RCTs are often also “double-blind,” meaning that the researchers or clinicians leading the study don’t know which participants are receiving the placebo and which are receiving the treatment. Blinding researchers and participants to which group participants are in helps minimize researcher biases.
How do I find trials that need participants?
If you’d like to participate in clinical trials during pregnancy or breastfeeding, which is also a need, contact your local research university and talk to your doctor or midwife. Medical practices that see a lot of pregnant people often are contacted by researchers to advertise for pregnant participants, so if your practice has a bulletin board, check there too. There are also websites online that you can search for clinical trials. The most well-known is clinicaltrials.gov, but you can also check out the Pregistry Studies page, which includes several observational studies of pregnancy, and the FDA website of pregnancy registries.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I had signed up for a clinical study with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), but my baby was born two weeks early, so I didn’t get a chance to participate. While pregnant with my second child, I participated in an observational study also at UNC about the relationship between mental health and the maternal and infant gut microbiome. I gave a sample, had a psychiatric evaluation, and submitted my baby’s first poop diaper for analysis. It was interesting, and I did feel as though I was contributing to science—and also received a Target gift card that I promptly spent on baby clothes and snacks. I’d recommend getting involved with research during your pregnancy if you have the time.
- Gatny, H. H., & Axinn, W. G. (2011). Willingness to Participate in Research during Pregnancy: Race, Experience, and Motivation. Field methods.