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Kids' Behavior Not Linked to Obese Moms-to-Be

Study Shows Obesity in Moms Before Pregnancy Does Not Raise Risk for Kids' Later Behavior Problems

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 27, 2010 -- Previous research has suggested that moms who are overweight or obese before they get pregnant are at risk for having offspring with behavioral such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and cognitive problems, but a new study shows this is not the case.

The new findings appear in Pediatrics.

Researchers analyzed two European pregnancy study groups comprising about 7,500 parents and children, and found no consistent link between pre-pregnancy maternal overweight and nonverbal skills, verbal skills, behavioral problems as a whole, hyperactivity, and attention issues in kids.

There were some initial hints of an association between maternal pre-pregnancy weight and verbal skills, total behavioral problems, and externalizing problems such as aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity, but this link was not substantiated between the two study groups.

Dad's weight was not associated with any behavior or cognition problems in offspring either, the new study shows.

The guiding theory was that there was something going on in the uterus during pregnancy that could increase risk for these problems in offspring, but the new study seems to debunk this theory. Certain socioeconomic or post-pregnancy factors such as lower socioeconomic status may increase the risk of behavior and cognition issues in offspring.

"We find little consistent evidence for intrauterine effects of maternal pre-pregnancy overweight on childhood verbal skills, nonverbal skills and behavioral problems," conclude study researcher Marie-Jo Brion, PhD, of the University of Bristol and colleagues. "Previously reported finding of an association with childhood ADHD and intellectual function is not supported by the present study."

Maternal Obesity

Manju Monga MD, Berel Held Professor and division director of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston, says "this study does not appear to support other studies that suggest an association between maternal obesity and early childhood intelligence/verbal skills or behavioral problems."

However, she tells WebMD in an email, "Maternal obesity is associated with an increased risk of pregnancy and postpartum complications such as fetal neural tube defects, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, cesarean delivery, postoperative infection, fetal macrosomia (large babies) and childhood obesity, so optimization of maternal weight prior to conception is recommended."

"More research is needed," she says, "before the results of this study can be generalized to pregnant women in the United States."

Psychological Warning Signs?

Leon Hoffman, MD, co-director of the Pacella Parent Child Center of The New York Psychoanalytic Society in New York City, says that extreme obesity in moms may be a warning sign of future psychosocial problems in their offspring. "That's why the study is interesting and valuable and should be on the radar," he tells WebMD in an email.

Severe pre-maternal overweight status may reflect some other underlying factor that may affect a child's development, he says. "If a mom is severely overweight, doctors should take into consideration a variety of psychosocial issues -- not just physiological issues."

Shari Gelber, MD, PhD, an ob-gyn and maternal-fetal medicine expert at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, agrees. "I would say if there is a link between maternal weight and the risk of future cognitive or behavioral problems, it is much more likely to be socioeconomic," she says. Poorer families, for example, may be less likely to consume healthy foods, and not have unbridled access to education and/or enrichment tools.

Maternal weight was associated with socioeconomic status in the new study.

The message is clear, she says. "Talk to your doctor before you get pregnant or when you first become pregnant about what is an appropriate weight for you," she says. "Aside from ADHD, being overweight before and during pregnancy has a lot of consequences. It increases your risk of having a large baby, gestational diabetes, and your child has an increased risk of obesity and heart disease."

SOURCES: Leon Hoffman, MD, co-director, Pacella Parent Child Center of The New York Psychoanalytic Society, New York City.Manju Monga, MD, the Berel Held Professor, division director, maternal-fetal medicine, University of Texas Health Sciences Center, Houston.Brion, M.J. Pediatrics.Shari Gelber, MD, PhD, ob-gyn, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York City.

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