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Early Childhood

Does Being Obese While Pregnant Harm Baby’s Brain Development?

By Julie Rasicot — May 10, 2012 2 min read
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Research has shown that being obese while pregnant can impact the physical development of an unborn child. Now, a new study suggests that pre-pregnancy obesity can also impact cognitive development.

The study by Ohio State University researchers makes the case that women who are obese before becoming pregnant are at higher risk of having kids with lower cognitive function than those who get pregnant at a healthy weight.

Researchers found that pre-pregnancy obesity was “associated, on average, with a three-point drop in reading scores and a two-point reduction in math scores on a commonly used test of children’s cognitive function,” according to a university press release.

The study, published online in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, was written by lead author Rika Tanda, a doctoral candidate in nursing, and senior author and nursing professor Pamela Salsberry.

It involved data collected from 3,412 kids between 5 and 7 years old who were born to mothers who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Mother and Child Survey. That survey, conducted by the national Bureau of Labor Statistics, included men and women born in 1957-64. Participants were between the ages of 14 and 22 when they were first interviewed in 1979.

More than half of the mothers had normal body mass indexes before pregnancy, while 9.6 percent were obese, with a BMI of 30 or higher.

Researchers examining children’s results on the Peabody Individual Achievement Test reading recognition and math assessments taken between the ages of 5 and 7 found that those born to obese mothers had lower test scores.

The score differences may seem minor, but Tanda noted that the effects of pre-pregnancy obesity were “equivalent to a seven-year decrease in the mothers’ education and significantly lower family income, two other known risk factors that negatively affect childhood cognitive function.”

She suggested that the study results could be used to encourage women who plan to become pregnant to maintain a healthy weight.

The study also reinforced previous research that has suggested that other factors also affect how a child’s brain develops after birth, including a stimulating and safe home environment with active family engagement, higher family income, and higher education levels for moms.

“If we have a good way to understand the risks each child is born with, we could tailor the post-birth environment in such a way that they could reach their maximum capabilities,” Salsberry said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.