Nutritional Sciences News & Highlights


Obesity in Pregnancy Impairs Children’s Brain Development

Image at 12 weeks, Public Domain

Children born to overweight or obese women face long-term neurological impairment—specifically in verbal ability—according to research recently published online in Maternal and Child Nutrition.

First author Elizabeth Widen, a research scientist in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, shows that children born to women who were overweight or obese before pregnancy have lower scores on a standardized vocabulary test at nine years of age. This result is consistent with other recent studies linking a mother's weight before pregnancy to a child's increased health risks, such as in higher rates of heart disease or autism.

"Our outcome supports previous research, although few studies have looked at as long-term an effect on child brain development as we did," says Widen. "By nine years of age, children tend to perform more consistently to their abilities, which is why our results are noteworthy for neural development."

The new research used data collected on 2,084 mother-child dyads during the late 1950s and 1960s as the Child Health and Development Studies. This cohort is the source of hundreds of research papers on short- and long-term pregnancy outcomes. Barbara Cohen, the current director, is a coauthor of the current paper.

Before pregnancy, 14% of the women in the study were overweight or obese before pregnancy. Data analyses found that children born to this group had lower Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test scores at nine years of age. The scores for Raven Progressive Matrices were also lower, but not significantly so.

"The effect is striking when you look at child development outcomes, especially with the Peabody verbal recognition test, suggesting that children of overweight or obese women may have impaired verbal abilites," says Widen. "Our results for the perceptual reasoning test indicated a trend towards adverse effects, although it was not significant."

Widen and colleagues also tested for the effect of weight gain during pregnancy but did not find a relationship with long-term child neural development.

In addition to Widen and Cohen, authors include Pam Factor-Litvak and Katrina Lynn Kezios of Columbia University Medical Center, Linda Gross Kahn of New York, and Piera Cirillo of Child Health and Development Studies. Sources of funding include the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.