Being overweight in early pregnancy associated with increased risk of cerebral palsy

Increasing global rates of obesity give this finding serious public health implications.

Maternal overweight and obesity were associated with increased rates of cerebral palsy in a study of Swedish women and their children. Of the 1,423,929 children included in the JAMA study, 3,029 were diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The results were statistically significant for children born at full term, which make up 71 percent of all children with cerebral palsy, but not for preterm infants. We spoke with author Eduardo Villamor of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health to learn more.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study, and what did you find?

Eduardo Villamor: We investigated this because the etiology of cerebral palsy in children born at full term is poorly understood. Sweden has nation-wide registries of excellent quality that allow epidemiologists to examine these questions using data from almost everybody in the country. We found that, among children born at full term, those whose mothers had overweight or obesity in early pregnancy had higher chances of developing cerebral palsy than children whose mothers had normal weight.

RG: Do you know why this association exists?

Villamor: Maternal obesity increases risk of asphyxia around the time of birth. It appears that the association between obesity and cerebral palsy may be explained in part through neonatal asphyxia.

RG: What would you recommend to overweight women who are thinking of having a child?

Villamor: Overweight and obesity in early pregnancy seem to increase risk of a number of obstetric complications and adverse maternal and child health outcomes. Some studies suggest that weight loss before pregnancy may be related to decreases of some of these risks. Although we don't know yet if this also applies to cerebral palsy, weight loss before pregnancy among women with overweight or obesity may offer some health benefits during and after pregnancy.

RG: Is there anything that can be done to prevent the risk for overweight women who are already pregnant?

Villamor: It remains to be seen whether special monitoring of pregnant women with overweight or obesity both during pregnancy and around the time of delivery could decrease the associated risks. We have not studied the effect of weight changes during pregnancy. Results from some intervention studies on weight change during pregnancy are heterogeneous and relatively modest; plus they are yet to be extended to longer term outcomes of the offspring.

RG: What’s next for your research?

Villamor: We hope to be able to examine longer-term outcomes related to maternal overweight and obesity, in both children and mothers. We also want to better understand to what extent these associations may represent causation.

Image courtesy of Tatiana Vdb.