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Can Pre-pregnancy Obesity Cause ADHD and ASD in Kids?

Blog Can Pre-pregnancy Obesity Cause ADHD and ASD in Kids?

A recent review​​​ of studies by researchers from Duke University Medical Center and Virginia Commonwealth University now suggests that these women may also be more likely to have a child with autism, ADHD or a developmental delay.


Being overweight prior and during pregnancy has long been linked to a number of complications including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, prematurity and an increase risk of birth defects.

However, a recent review of studies by researchers from Duke University Medical Center and Virginia Commonwealth University now suggests that these women may also be more likely to have a child with autism, ADHD or a developmental delay.

Scientists pooled the results of 32 studies, looking for a link between whether a woman was overweight or obese before she became pregnant, and neurodevelopmental disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in their children. The analysis found that, compared with children of normal weight mothers, children whose mothers were overweight or obese prior to pregnancy had 17 percent and 51 percent increased risks for compromised neurodevelopmental outcomes, respectively.

They found that pre-pregnancy obesity was linked with a 62 percent increased risk of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a 36 percent increased risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a 58 percent increased risk of developmental delay, and a 42 percent increased risk of emotional/behavioral problems.

So, what do new parents need to know? “We know that exposure to toxins and things like smoking and alcohol during pregnancy can raise the risk of certain outcomes like ADHD in children, so there is an exposure factor involved here,” explains Dr. William Kronenberger, pediatric psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “However, it’s important to keep in mind that this study does have some limitations.”

To start, he says, the researcher’s findings are based on observational studies that varied widely in their studied populations, how they assessed weight status and neurodevelopmental outcomes, and the other factors taken into account.

“So, it’s possible that genetics, health, lifestyle and other environmental factors could have played a role in the likelihood of having a child with one of these conditions,” explains Dr. Kronenberger. “Therefore, the studies aren’t able to prove there’s a direct link between these disorders and women who were overweight or obese before falling pregnant. That said, the various risks of a woman being overweight or obese during pregnancy are well established, so healthy habits continue to be critical.”

The bottom line: “We need more research in this area before we can draw any concrete conclusions,” says Dr. Kronenberger.

In the interim, on the research front, scientists say that a critical next step could be to start looking at biological causes for the links, such as maternal obesity possibly influencing inflammation levels during a child’s development in the womb.

-- By Sarah Burns

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