Children born to obese, hypertensive or diabetic mothers are 60% more likely to be autistic or have other developmental delays, according to a new study. This adds to a wealth of evidence linking maternal obesity with unhealthy or impaired children. Yet whenever the issue of pregnancy and weight gets attention—ahem, Jessica Simpson—everyone still acts like it’s mostly a matter of looks, or how it will affect post-pregnancy weight loss.
Deborah wrote here last week about how much of the criticism of Simpson’s ‘excessive’ pregnancy weight-gain (allegedly 40-50 pounds) has focused on the tired old trope of how (tsk tsk!) pregnant women shant be “letting themselves go.” And she’s right, it’s obnoxious. A lot of the media coverage has been fat-shaming, or just plain gawking, and who wants to endorse any of that?
But being overweight during pregnancy—or gaining too much weight while pregnant—can have some seriously negative outcomes for both pregnant women and their babies.
This new study (published in the journal Pediatrics) is far from the first study to say so: A study published last month found obese moms were more likely to have children with cognitive impairments. Other recent research has linked maternal obesity to birth defects, including spina bifida and limb deformities. An analysis of over a decade’s worth of births in New Jersey and Michigan found women who put on a lot of weight while pregnant were much more likely to have heavier kids at birth, who are likelier to become heavier kids and heavier adults. By putting on too many pounds, Simpson could be putting her baby-to-be at a higher risk for autism, cognitive problems and future obesity.
The drastic rise in cases of childhood autism—a few decades ago, fewer than one in 2,000 kids were born autistic; the CDC recently announced one out of every 88 American kids are—can largely be explained by a) the broadening of autism in the DSM to ‘autism spectrum disorder,’ which includes Asperger’s syndrome and other milder forms of the disease, and b) greater awareness/detection. But some of the rise can also be attributed to environmental factors, scientists say (though not MMR vaccines, despite what Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey claim). And the concurrent rise in obese adults in the U.S. and babies born with autism makes maternal obesity a convincing link, at least.
It’s not as simple as obesity ups the risk of autistic kids, though, said study co-author Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences at the University of California at Davis.
“It might be there’s some environmental factor that contributes both to the obesity epidemic and to the rise in autism cases. Or it could be the increase in obesity is, in fact, contributing to the increase in autism. But it’s certainly not going to account for all of it.”
Other factors during pregnancy—like poor nutrition, antidepressant use, or closely spaced pregnancies—are also linked to higher rates of autism. In Hertz-Picciotto’s study, it wasn’t just maternal obesity but also Type 2 or gestational diabetes and high blood pressure associated with development problems. (Of course, being overweight or gaining too much weight during pregnancy are two of several factors that can lead to diabetes and/or hypertension.)
“Any time a child is diagnosed with autism, the parents pour over everything that they were exposed to: what they ate; what they drank; when they were ill,” said Susan Hyman, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. But “each of these contributors is very small,” and mothers should not feel guilty if they were obese during pregnancy, she notes.