Does Parental Obesity Affect Child Development?

Pregnant women weighing herself
Pregnant women weighing herself
Children born to obese parents may be more likely to experience developmental delays.

The risk for developmental delays may be higher in children born to obese parents when compared with children born to normal-weight parents, according to research published in Pediatrics.

“The previous US studies in this area have focused on the mothers’ pre- and post-pregnancy weight,” Edwina Yeung, PhD, first study author and an investigator in the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a news release. “Our study is one of the few that also includes information about fathers, and our results suggest that dad’s weight also has a significant influence on child development.”

For the study, Dr Yeung and colleagues reviewed data collected from the Upstate KIDS study, which originally assessed the potential effects of fertility treatment on child development from birth through age 3 years. A total of 5034 mothers from New York State, excluding New York City, were recruited approximately 4 months after giving birth from 2008 to 2010.

To evaluate development, parents completed the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) after performing a series of activities with their children at ages 4, 8, 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36 months. The ASQ, which is validated for screening but is not designed to diagnose problems, screens for delays in 5 developmental domains: fine motor, gross motor, communication, personal-social functioning, and problem-solving ability. Analyses included all singleton births (n = 3759) and 1 randomly selected twin from each pair (n = 1062) with at least 1 ASQ domain delay.

At enrollment, mothers completed a questionnaire that asked about health status and lifestyle as well as both parents’ height and weight before and after pregnancy. The researchers also used information on maternal pre-pregnancy weight, weight at delivery, and height from electronic birth certificates to calculate maternal BMI. Paternal BMI was calculated using the information on height and weight provided by the mothers.

Compared with children of normal-weight or underweight mothers, children of obese mothers were nearly 70% more likely to fail the fine motor skills domain of the ASQ by age 3 years (adjusted odds ratio [OR]: 1.67; 95% CI, 1.12-2.47), even after adjustment for paternal BMI (adjusted OR: 1.67; 95% CI, 1.11-2.52). Similarly, children of obese fathers were 75% more likely to fail the personal-social domain by age 3 years (adjusted OR: 1.75; 95% CI, 1.13-2.71). This relationship, however, was attenuated after accounting for maternal BMI (adjusted OR: 1.71; 95% CI, 1.08-2.70). A child’s likelihood of also failing the problem-solving domain by age 3 years increased nearly 3-fold if both parents had BMIs of 35 or higher (adjusted OR: 2.93; 95% CI, 1.09-7.85).

“Findings emphasize the importance of family information when screening child development as, if replicated elsewhere, such information may help inform closer monitoring or earlier intervention,” the researchers concluded.

The investigators acknowledged several study limitations, including the variation in the ASQ’s sensitivity, the fact that some children may outgrow their delays, reporting errors regarding paternal BMI, and a mostly white cohort.

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  1. Yeung EH, Sundaram R, Ghassabian A, Xie Y, Louis GB. Parental obesity and early childhood development [published online January 2, 2017]. Pediatrics. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1459.
  2. Parental obesity linked to delays in child development, NIH study suggests [news release]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; January 3, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2017.