Preschool children are more than twice as likely to be obese if their mothers were obese during pregnancy, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.
While previous studies have shown a relationship between pre-pregnancy obesity in mothers and obesity in young adulthood, this is the first study to examine how early the problem can develop in children, say the study's authors, who also suggest prevention strategies are needed to target obese mothers and their newborns.
Researchers studied the health records of 8,494 children from low-income families enrolled in a special U.S. federal nutrition program in the Ohio area. The children, born between 1992 and 1996, were followed from the first trimester of pregnancy until between two and five years of age. The study examined height and weight data of both the children and their mothers.
The study, conducted by Robert Whitaker, formerly with University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine, found children whose mothers were obese during pregnancy were up to 2.7 times more likely to be obese between ages two and five than those who were born to normal-weight mothers.
Nearly one-third of the mothers in the nutrition program were already obese when they conceived, and one in four of all children born to these mothers were already obese by 4 years of age. The study also reported that these obese 4-year-olds are three times more likely to be obese in adolescence.
Whitaker's research did not seek to determine what causes obesity in preschoolers, but explained that factors such as genetics, the mother's own weight during pregnancy and her role in shaping her child's eating and activity habits, all play a role. It also highlights the impact that maternal and child obesity has on the current obesity epidemic in the U.S.
The time before a mother conceives, as well as during pregnancy and in the early years of the child's life, writes Whitaker, may provide important opportunities to prevent obesity by influencing a continuing family cycle that promotes obesity.