MONDAY, Dec. 5 , 2005 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that you're not the only one affected by the things you ingest or inhale: Babies born to women who smoked or were obese during pregnancy are much more likely to become overweight as young children.
Ohio State University researchers found that babies born to women who were overweight at the start of their pregnancies had up to three times the risk of becoming overweight themselves compared to children of women at normal weight. In mothers who smoked during their pregnancy, the risk of a child becoming overweight was nearly doubled.
Whether this association is linked to biological changes that occur in utero, or whether it's from environmental exposure after the birth isn't clear. However, study author Pamela Salsberry said that from her analysis, it looked as if both factors contributed to the early childhood excess weight gain.
"We don't have physiological data, but our findings suggest that prenatal exposure can be seen as a risk factor. There's such a strong relationship," said Salsberry, a professor of nursing at Ohio State University.
The findings appear in the December issue of Pediatrics.
Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth's Child-Mother file, Salsberry and her colleague, Patricia Reagan, compared a child's height and weight at three different points to a variety of prenatal and postnatal characteristics. Some of the prenatal and postnatal characteristics were age, race, education, weight, smoking history, marriage status, whether or not the woman had been pregnant before, and whether or not the child was breast-fed.
Their analysis included more than 3,000 children, who were weighed when they were roughly ages 3, 5 and 7 years.
Youngsters were considered overweight if their body mass index (BMI) fell at or above the 95th percentile on children's growth charts for their age and gender.
The researchers found that many factors were associated with early childhood weight gain, including race, ethnicity, maternal smoking and maternal pre-pregnancy weight. The two factors with the strongest association, however, were maternal weight and smoking.
Children born to mothers who were overweight or obese had between double and triple the risk of becoming overweight by age 7 than children born to mothers at normal weight for the start of her pregnancy.
"It's important for women to understand that their weight status does matter long-term to their children's weight status," said Salsberry.
Children born to mothers who smoked had a 74 percent increased risk of being overweight by age 7 compared to children born to women who didn't smoke during pregnancy.
Additionally, black and Hispanic children were more likely than white children to become overweight before age 7.
"This is an interesting study that reconfirms our already important concerns about health throughout a lifetime," said Dr. Helen Binns, director of the nutrition evaluation clinic at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
As to whether she believes the additional risk comes from environmental exposure or something that occurs prenatally, Binns said, "The prenatal environment is important, and the postnatal environment is important."
She added, "As parents, we need to look at ourselves and see how we take care of ourselves. That will influence what our children see. Childhood obesity isn't a child's problem; it's a family problem and ultimately, society's problem. We can't just address childhood obesity; obesity is the issue."
To begin with, Binns said, "We need to focus on healthy lifestyle habits so they become routine. Make small steps to begin to establish health habits for you and your family. These habits will transfer to your children. Don't crash diet. Do something sensible. Eat fruits and vegetables; initiate and maintain a more healthy lifestyle."
Salsberry added, "Overweight in young children isn't always seen as a problem, but it tracks as children age. Children who are overweight at school-age were often overweight or at risk for being overweight at a younger age. The take-home message for parents and health-care workers is to pay attention to weight, and intervene at a young age. Do it early before patterns are set."
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has plenty of tips on maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.