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The University of Southampton

New insight into risks of childhood obesity

Published: 7 August 2019
Mother holding baby

Southampton researchers have gained new insight into maternal and early-life predictors of childhood obesity.

In three separate papers, from the SLOPE (Studying Lifecourse Obesity PrEdictors) study, they have looked at the role of socioeconomic inequalities, mothers’ weight gain and birth spacing in shaping future risk of obesity.

SLOPE is led by Dr Nisreen Alwan, with a research team based at the Public Health Group, Faculty of Medicine, and aims to utilise existing individual and area-level routine data to identify maternal and early-life risk factors for childhood obesity. It also aims to develop a risk identification system for early prediction of childhood obesity using routinely-collected data in order to prevent it before it happens.

The first paper, published in BMJ Open, found that mothers who did not go on to further education or were unemployed were at higher risk of giving birth to a small-for-gestational-age baby and that risk did not reduce over a 12-year period.

Small for gestational age babies are those who are smaller than the usual amount for the number of weeks of pregnancy and usually have birthweights below the 10th percentile. These children are at risk of obesity in later childhood.

The study also found that differences in maternal smoking play a big role but do not explain all the observed disparities. The strength of inequalities by educational attainment and employment status also varied depending on whether the mother already had older children.

Dr Alwan said: “These findings give us important insight into the social and economic determinants of health. It is important that there is no blame attached but instead a recommendation that resources for preventative interventions should be targeted at supporting socially disadvantaged women to reduce small for gestational age risk.”

In another paper, published in BMJ Open, the researchers looked at whether weight gain between pregnancies was associated with having a large-for-gestational age (LGA) baby, which is another risk factor for obesity later in childhood. 

They found that a lower proportion of babies born to women who lost weight or remained at a stable weight between pregnancies were LGA compared to women who gained weight. They also found that overweight women who lost weight after an LGA birth had, on average, a reduced risk of having another large baby in their next pregnancy.

Dr Alwan said: “A golden window of opportunity for improving the whole family’s health is the period between successive pregnancies. Preventing weight gain between pregnancies is an important measure to improve mother and child health. We should be supporting mothers to achieve or maintain a healthy weight through a variety of individual, family-centred and wider environment structural changes”

Another finding from SLOPE and published in Scientific Reports was that an inter-pregnancy interval of 12-23 months was associated with the lowest risk of the mother starting the next pregnancy with a higher weight.

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