Maternal Input: A Mother's Weight during Pregnancy Can Shape Her Child's Mental and Physical Health

By Bell, Laura | Science News, January 23, 2016 | Go to article overview

Maternal Input: A Mother's Weight during Pregnancy Can Shape Her Child's Mental and Physical Health


Bell, Laura, Science News


When Elinor Sullivan was a postdoctoral fellow at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, she set out to explore the influence of food and exercise habits on obesity. In one experiment, she and her colleagues fed a troop of macaque monkeys regular chow. Other macaques dined American-style, with a hefty 32 percent of calories from fat and ready access to peanut butter treats. Over time, the second group of monkeys grew noticeably fatter.

Then they all had babies.

Sullivan, now at the University of Portland, noticed odd behavior in the plump moms' offspring. At playtime, they often slinked off by themselves. When handled by keepers, the infants tended to vocalize anxiously, and the males became aggressive. They were prone to repetitive habits, like pacing.

In their carefully controlled world, the only difference between those monkeys and others at the facility was their mothers' extra pounds and indulgent diet. The behavior was so striking that Sullivan changed the course of her research.

"It made me start thinking about human children," she says, and the twin epidemics of obesity and behavioral problems such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Her research, published in 2010 in the Journal of Neuroscience, was one of the first studies to note that the progeny of female monkeys eating a high-fat diet were more likely to experience altered brain development and suffer anxiety. Not long after, researchers worldwide began compiling evidence linking the heaviness of human mothers to mental health in their children. One headline-grabbing study of more than 1,000 births, reported in 2012, found that autism spectrum disorders showed up more often in children of obese mothers than in normal-weight women (SN: 5/19/12, p. 16).

Over the course of a generation, obesity rates among U.S. women have soared. Today, 38 percent of females in the population are obese (defined as a body mass index of 30 or higher). Among women of childbearing age, well over half are overweight or obese, with almost 8 percent considered extremely obese (a BMI of 40 or greater). Lucilla Poston, who is head of the division of women's health at King's College London, calls too much weight during pregnancy "the biggest problem in obstetrics at the moment."

Within the body, obesity is not a passive state. Excess weight can inflame the immune system, upset the balance of hormones and even alter the microbial flora tucked inside the intestine. If shared by the fetus, any or all of these changes can affect the baby's development in subtle but important ways. Further complicating matters, the fetus is probably being exposed to the effects of fattening, and perhaps inflammatory, foods.

Only recently have researchers begun to understand what this physiological storm might mean for children. In part, obesity during pregnancy raises the odds that a baby will be born overly large, setting the stage for future health problems (SN: 5/31/14, p. 22). But when a mother is excessively overweight, risks persist even for newborns of normal size. One study published in 2013 in the journal BMJ analyzed medical records of more than 37,000 people born in Scotland between 1950 and 1976. After accounting for socioeconomic status, gender, weight at birth and many other variables, the researchers found that children born to obese mothers had a 35 percent higher mortality rate from birth to 2012. "Independent of birth weight, a child can grow up with increased blood pressure, obesity and risk of diabetes," Poston says.

The list doesn't stop there. Perhaps most surprisingly, a mom's metabolic state might compromise her child's mental health--the very observation that changed Elinor Sullivan's career. One study published in 2015 even raises the possibility that a child's normal cognitive development might be slightly impaired by mom's high BMI.

If there is a bright spot, it's that unlike many threats during development, this one is preventable. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Maternal Input: A Mother's Weight during Pregnancy Can Shape Her Child's Mental and Physical Health
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.