26-years study has found that obese women are more likely to have sons with behavioral issues and learning difficulties. It did not show the same effects in girls.
“Early intervention with women to attain healthy weights before they become pregnant is critical to their health and the health of their future children,” says senior researcher Barbara Abrams, DrPH, of the Division of Epidemiology, University of California, Berkeley.
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In the US 15 out of every 100 women are severely obese. Studies have linked the high weight, before and during pregnancy, to child behavior and particularly to problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Some evidence also points to a possible link with internalizing problems, such as depression. These problems can have adverse effects on school performance and relationships with others.
The researchers analyzed nearly 5,000 female and their biological children for 26 years, from 1986 to 2012.
They estimated the effect is modified by race or gender, as well as by race and gender simultaneously.
Behavioral problems were assessed every two years for children age 4-14 years, using the maternal report of the Behavior Problems Index (BPI), a widely used 28-item questionnaire, to determine whether they exhibited specific behaviors in the past three months. Because early puberty is a time when behavioral problems tend to emerge, this study focused on children aged 9-11 years.
Approximately 65 percent percent of the mothers were normal weight, 8 percent underweight, and 10 percent obese.
Of the obese group, 3.5 percent were clinically obese with a BMI of 35 or higher.
Underweight women were younger, less likely to be married, and had the lowest education, income, and Armed Forces Qualifying Test scores.
The study showed that boys whose mothers entered pregnancy obese were at higher risk for behavior problems at ages 9-11 years.
Data indicated that the heavier mothers were when they entered pregnancy, the higher the risk for behavioral problems to develop in their sons.
Boys whose mothers were underweight pre-pregnancy also showed a higher risk for behavior problems. The study did not show the same effects in girls, and there were no differences for race.
Researcher Juliana Deardorff, PhD explained, “Past research looking at a variety of exposures during pregnancy (ranging from stress to chemicals) has shown that boys tend to be more vulnerable to these exposures in utero than girls. Our study extends this work to maternal obesity.”
“It is the first study to document gender differences, and one of a handful of studies to show that pre-pregnancy underweight, in addition to obesity, may be problematic,” she continued. “Future research should examine whether the gender differences reported here for ages 9-11 years persist into adolescence or shift as children get older.”
The results reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.