David Ludwig and colleagues examine the within-family relationship between pregnancy weight gain and the offspring's childhood weight gain, thereby reducing the influence of genes and environment.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Excessive pregnancy weight gain is associated with obesity in the offspring, but this relationship may be confounded by genetic and other shared influences. We aimed to examine the association of pregnancy weight gain with body mass index (BMI) in the offspring, using a within-family design to minimize confounding.
Methods and Findings
In this population-based cohort study, we matched records of all live births in Arkansas with state-mandated data on childhood BMI collected in public schools (from August 18, 2003 to June 2, 2011). The cohort included 42,133 women who had more than one singleton pregnancy and their 91,045 offspring. We examined how differences in weight gain that occurred during two or more pregnancies for each woman predicted her children's BMI and odds ratio (OR) of being overweight or obese (BMI≥85th percentile) at a mean age of 11.9 years, using a within-family design. For every additional kg of pregnancy weight gain, childhood BMI increased by 0.0220 (95% CI 0.0134–0.0306, p<0.0001) and the OR of overweight/obesity increased by 1.007 (CI 1.003–1.012, p = 0.0008). Variations in pregnancy weight gain accounted for a 0.43 kg/m2 difference in childhood BMI. After adjustment for birth weight, the association of pregnancy weight gain with childhood BMI was attenuated but remained statistically significant (0.0143 kg/m2 per kg of pregnancy weight gain, CI 0.0057–0.0229, p = 0.0007).
High pregnancy weight gain is associated with increased body weight of the offspring in childhood, and this effect is only partially mediated through higher birth weight. Translation of these findings to public health obesity prevention requires additional study.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Childhood obesity has become a worldwide epidemic. For example, in the United States, the number of obese children has more than doubled in the past 30 years. 7% of American children aged 6–11 years were obese in 1980, compared to nearly 18% in 2010. Because of the rising levels of obesity, the current generation of children may have a shorter life span than their parents for the first time in 200 years.
Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on health. The initial problems are usually psychological. Obese children often experience discrimination, leading to low self-esteem and depression. Their physical health also suffers. They are more likely to be at risk of cardiovascular disease from high cholesterol and high blood pressure. They may also develop pre-diabetes or diabetes type II. In the long-term, obese children tend to become obese adults, putting them at risk of premature death from stroke, heart disease, or cancer.
There are many factors that lead to childhood obesity and they often act in combination. A major risk factor, especially for younger children, is having at least one obese parent. The challenge lies in unravelling the complex links between the genetic and environmental factors that are likely to be involved.
Why Was This Study Done?
Several studies have shown that a child's weight is influenced by his/her mother's weight before pregnancy and her weight gain during pregnancy. An obese mother, or a mother who puts on more pregnancy weight than average, is more likely to have an obese child.
One explanation for the effects of pregnancy weight gain is that the mother's overeating directly affects the baby's development. It may change the baby's brain and metabolism in such a way as to increase the child's long-term risk of obesity. Animal studies have confirmed that the offspring of overfed rats show these kinds of physiological changes. However, another possible explanation is that mother and baby share a similar genetic make-up and environment so that a child becomes obese from inheriting genetic risk factors, and growing up in a household where being overweight is the norm.
The studies in humans that have been carried out to date have not been able to distinguish between these explanations. Some have given conflicting results. The aim of this study was therefore to look for evidence of links between pregnancy weight gain and children's weight, using an approach that would separate the impact of genetic and environmental factors from a direct effect on the developing baby.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers examined data from the population of the US state of Arkansas recorded between 2003 and 2011. They looked at the health records of over 42,000 women who had given birth to more than one child during this period. This gave them information about how much weight the women had gained during each of their pregnancies. The researchers also looked at the school records of the children, over 91,000 in total, which included the children's body mass index (BMI, which factors in both height and weight). They analyzed the data to see if there was a link between the mothers' pregnancy weight gain and the child's BMI at around 12 years of age. Most importantly, they looked at these links within families, comparing children born to the same mother. The rationale for this approach was that these children would share a similar genetic make-up and would have grown up in similar environments. By taking genetics and environment into account in this manner, any remaining evidence of an impact of pregnancy weight gain on the children's BMI would have to be explained by other factors.
The results showed that the amount of weight each mother gained in pregnancy predicted her children's BMI and the likelihood of her children being overweight or obese. For every additional kg the mother gained during pregnancy, the children's BMI increased by 0.022. The children of mothers who put on the most weight had a BMI that was on average 0.43 higher than the children whose mothers had put on the least weight.
The study leaves some questions unanswered, including whether the mother's weight before pregnancy makes a difference to their children's BMI. The researchers were not able to obtain these measurements, nor the weight of the fathers. There may have also been other factors that weren't measured that might explain the links that were found.
What Do These Findings Mean?
This study shows that mothers who gain excessive weight during pregnancy increase the risk of their child becoming obese. This appears to be partly due to a direct effect on the developing baby.
These results represent a significant public health concern, even though the impact on an individual basis is relatively small. They could contribute to several hundred thousand cases of childhood obesity worldwide. Importantly, they also suggest that some cases could be prevented by measures to limit excessive weight gain during pregnancy. Such an approach could prove effective, as most mothers will not want to damage their child's health, and might therefore be highly motivated to change their behavior. However, because inadequate weight gain during pregnancy can also adversely affect the developing fetus, it will be essential for women to receive clear information about what constitutes optimal weight gain during pregnancy.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001521.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide Childhood Obesity Facts
The UK National Health Service article “How much weight will I put on during my pregnancy?” provides information on pregnancy and weight gain and links to related resources