Children of overweight parents may have a higher risk of developmental delays in fine motor skills, social competency and problem-solving skills, a new study shows.
The findings by the National Institutes of Health may help raise alarms in Cowlitz County, which has been among the top five most obese counties in the state for the last six years.
Health officials have long struggled to get people here to lose weight. While the rates of adult obesity have plateaued, the rates of pre-pregnancy obesity in Washington have increased over the past five years.
A quarter of women in Washington state from 2012 to 2014 were obese prior to giving birth. And the pre-pregnancy obesity rate in Cowlitz County is 6 percent higher than the state average, according to the most recent data from the Washington State Department of Health.
“Trying to address the obesity issue is a major difficulty,” said Dr. Blaine Tolby, general pediatrician with the Child and Adolescent Medical Clinic in Longview. “We need to encourage them to get involved.”
For the NIH study, researchers collected 2008-2010 survey data in New York, originally studying whether fertility treatments could affect child development from birth through age 3. More than 5,000 women were included in the study four months after giving birth.
The survey put the mothers and children through a series of activities used as a screening for disabilities. The screenings were done seven times over the course of three years, and the weights of the children and both parents also were recorded.
The researchers found that children of obese mothers were nearly 70 percent more likely to fail the test for fine motor skills by age 3, as compared to children of normal weight mothers. The children of obese fathers were 75 percent more likely to fail the test indicating how well they relate and interact with others.
Children whose parents were both obese were almost three times more likely to fail a test on problem solving skills, according to the NIH press release.
“The previous U.S. studies in this area have focused on the mothers’ pre-and-post-pregnancy weight,” said Edwina Yeung, the study’s lead author and an investigator with the NIH on intramural population health research. “Our study is one of the few that also includes information about fathers, and our results suggest that dad’s weight also has significant influence on child development.”
The NIH study said it’s unknown why parental obesity might increase a child’s risk for developmental delays, but authors note that animal studies indicate that obesity during pregnancy may increase inflammation, affecting the baby’s brain, according to the NIH press release.
It’s also unknown why the father’s weight may affect their children, though some studies have indicated that obesity could affect the expression of genes in sperm, the release said.
Carleen Wolgamott, a health specialist with Cowlitz County Head Start, said the study is a good first step, but she would like to see more studies on the topic before taking the findings as fact.
“The value is just taking an initial step and doing more studies to confirm the results or to negate them,” Wolgamott said. “You have to look at it harder before deciding that there is a potential issue. But, like everything, intervention is key.”
Tolby, with the child and adolescent clinic, said the logic behind the study makes sense.
“Obese parents are not as physically active, and that might mean less interaction with the kids and that may show up as developmental challenges,” he said.
To confirm the link between obesity and childhood development, more studies would need to be done. But if confirmed, the next step would be increasing collaboration between health, medical and educational services, Tolby and Walgamott say.
“It has to be awareness,” Tolby said. “If we see that there’s a double impact, not just on physical health, but on developmental health, we then have an obligation to try harder to address the needs of these families.”