Updated 21 June 2017

Kids of obese moms have elevated risk of ADHD

According to a new study, kids of moms who are severely obese are twice as likely to have emotional symptoms and problems with peers compared to kids of moms with a healthy BMI.

Six-year-olds whose mothers were severely obese before pregnancy are more likely to have developmental or emotional problems than kids of healthy-weight moms, according to a new study.

Pretty large associations

The researchers had found evidence of this link in two previous studies, said lead author Heejoo Jo of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

"We wanted to see if we would find the same association using a variety of different measures," Jo told Reuters Health by phone.

"We did find pretty large associations, much bigger than we thought," she said.

Read: What is ADHD?

Jo and her co-authors studied data on 1,311 mother-child pairs collected between 2005 and 2012, including the mothers' body mass index (BMI, a height-to-weight ratio) before pregnancy and their reports of the children's psychosocial difficulties at age six.

The researchers also incorporated the children's developmental diagnoses and receipt of special needs services.

Kids of moms who were severely obese, with a BMI greater than 35, were twice as likely to have emotional symptoms, problems with peers and total psychosocial difficulties compared to kids of moms who had a healthy BMI, between 18.5 and 25.

More likely to have ADHD

They were three times as likely to have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and more than four time as likely to have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as reported in Paediatrics.

The researchers accounted for pregnancy weight gain, gestational diabetes, breastfeeding duration, postpartum depression and infant birth weight, none of which explained the apparent link.

"We already do know that obesity is related to health problems during pregnancy and throughout the lifetime," Jo said.

Read: Symptoms of ADHD

"I think this adds to that by suggesting that not only does severe obesity affect a woman's health but the health of her future children."

It was particularly surprising that many of the children of severely obese mothers were of average body weight at age six, said Jed Friedman of the reproductive sciences faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Colorado Denver.

"Maternal diet during pregnancy and lactation plays a very significant role in childhood outcomes," Friedman, who wasn't part of the study, told Reuters Health by email.

No measurements of diet

"The authors did not include any measurements of diet, although they did adjust for maternal weight gain, gestational diabetes, and breast-feeding."

This study could not analyse the mechanism linking severe obesity and later risk for developmental problems, Jo noted.

"One theory that we could not look at and needs further research was some small studies have linked maternal obesity to increased inflammation, which might affect foetal brain development," she said.

Women should receive comprehensive care and discuss all health and medical issues with their doctors before becoming pregnant, and that includes weight status, Jo said.

Read: Treating ADHD

"Pre-gestational weight loss is recommended for severely obese women," Friedman said. The healthier a woman can be entering pregnancy, the better, he said.

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that all children be screened for developmental delay or disability at nine, 18 and 24 or 30 months of age, and women who were severely obese before pregnancy should be especially committed to getting those screens done, she said.

"And if they have any concerns, bring the child in immediately," she said.

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Image: Obese mother and child from Shutterstock


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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