The impact of maternal obesity on a child’s cognitive and physical development

13 December 2016

An Australian study suggests that maternal obesity has a detrimental effect on a child’s cognitive development, but notes there is limited evidence for its impact on physical development.  

The paper, published in the International Journal of Obesity, examined 17 studies to review the evidence about the impact of maternal obesity on a child’s physical and cognitive development.

The article notes that maternal obesity is on the rise.  In the USA, only 13% of mothers were classified as obese in 1994, but by 2003 this had jumped to 22%.

The authors say several studies have demonstrated that children of obese mothers are more likely to become obese and to have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

They say it’s suggested that maternal obesity may also affect the physical and cognitive development of children through intrauterine fetal programming caused by the increased levels of fatty acids, glucose, leptin and inflammatory markers.

The examination of available evidence suggests that:

  • Women entering pregnancy with a higher BMI, specifically pre-pregnancy obesity, are at higher risk of having children with impaired cognitive development

  • There’s a negative association between maternal obesity and a child’s gross motor skills

  • The effect of maternal obesity on fine motor development in children is more subtle or there is no effect.

The authors say it’s still unclear whether the observed negative association between maternal obesity and children’s cognitive development is casual or due to residual confounding effects.

But they warn that if it is causal it could have major ramifications for the health workforce.

“If the association between maternal obesity and impaired cognitive ability in children is causal then its clinical implication would be substantial as maternal obesity is a serious public health burden in most developed nations.

“Maternal weight loss before conception may be advised for various reasons but thus far, evidence about the association between maternal obesity and impaired children’s cognitive abilities and motor functions is evolving, inconsistent and observational,” the authors say.

You can read the study exploring the impact of maternal obesity on a child’s physical and cognitive development here.