Mother’s Weight Puts Children at Risk for Obesity, Study Finds

Posted: July 26, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 26, 2010 at 3:12 pm

By Marjorie Musick

Image by br3akthru, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What causes childhood obesity? Mason College of Health and Human Services researchers Panagiota Kitsantas, Lisa R. Pawloski and Kathleen F. Gaffney believe that obesity risk factors begin even before a child is conceived.

Pediatric obesity affects one out of every seven low-income, preschool-aged children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. To understand its root causes, Mason’s researchers examined the body mass index (BMI) of white and Hispanic women before they became pregnant and compared it to their children’s BMI at ages 2 and 4.

Using nationally representative data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort, which followed thousands of children from birth through kindergarten entry, the researchers found that both white and Hispanic women who were overweight or obese prior to pregnancy were more likely to have children who were overweight or obese as toddlers and preschoolers than women who had a normal prepregnancy BMI.

In the cohort, 41.6 percent of Hispanic mothers and 34.8 percent of white mothers were overweight or obese prior to pregnancy. When compared to children born to Hispanic mothers with a normal prepregnancy BMI, preschoolers born to overweight or obese Hispanic mothers were more than twice as likely to be overweight or obese, while preschoolers born to overweight or obese white mothers were approximately 1.4 times more likely to be overweight or obese.

Children who were overweight or obese at age 2 were more likely to be overweight or obese by age 4 for both racial and ethnic groups.

“This study is exciting, as it clearly shows a link between a mother’s prepregnancy weight and the weight of her child. Therefore, prevention of childhood obesity begins earlier than we ever thought before. Interventions should be tailored that way, particularly among specific ethnicities, as these data clearly show,” says Pawloski, associate professor and chair of the Department of Global and Community Health.

By understanding how maternal prepregnancy obesity influences children’s BMI in different racial and ethnic groups, it may be possible to design effective intervention and prevention programs that reduce both maternal and childhood obesity.

The researchers also found that children born to white or Hispanic mothers who never breastfed them were more likely to be overweight or obese at age 2. Additional risk factors — high birth weight, low socioeconomic status, smoking and having fewer children — increased the risk of obesity only among children born to white mothers.

The good news, according to Kitsantas, is that maternal obesity can be prevented by developing targeted health programs that include the assessment and treatment of obesity for women of childbearing age before pregnancy begins. Early intervention programs for overweight or obese toddlers can also be developed.

”This study adds to the body of current research that points out how important it is for women of childbearing age to develop lifestyle habits that promote a healthy weight before they become pregnant. These early habits may have a big influence, not only on their own health and well-being, but also on that of their future children,” says Kitsantas, an associate professor in the Department of Global and Community Health.

The results of the study, “Maternal prepregnancy body mass index in relation to Hispanic preschooler overweight/obesity,” were published in the June 8, 2010, online edition of the European Journal of Pediatrics.

This study was supported by George Mason University.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu