Obesity epidemic taking its toll on newborn babies

Obesity can present as much danger to an unborn child as smoking during pregnancy, according to the author of new research into Australia's battle with the bulge.

The review of 6000 pregnancies in rural Victoria over six years has found that, compared to women of a healthy weigh, overweight and obese mothers experienced birth complications or their newborns were more likely to have been delivered with health problems.

One of the review’s authors, associate professor Glyn Teale, said mothers who are overweight are as much of a danger to their unborn child as those who smoke tobacco.

“That’s a challenge because if you begin a pregnancy with a weight above a healthy range, unlike smoking you can’t give people advice just to stop it,” he said.

“But the facts are from a risk point of view your pregnancy is presented with considerably more risks as the result of an unhealthy weight.”

Of the women studied in north-west Victoria, 65 per cent were overweight or obese. In some capital cities, the rate is as low as 18 per cent.

The impact of the obesity epidemic on childbirth is compounded by a lack of skills or facilities in many country towns to handle life-threatening complications.

“A lot of rural (maternity) units will be run by GP obstetricians and don’t have a specialist on site,” associate professor Teale said.

“So you may have places in northern Victoria for instance where the nearest specialist may be 150 to 200 kilometres away.”

Associate professor Teale said the research, published today in the latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, served as a warning to prospective mums.

Overweight women should delay getting pregnant until their weight is under control, he said.

 “The advice is to sensibly get your weight down to a healthy range, not crash dieting, not taking on a fad diet … but to gradually over time target a healthy weight and that will dramatically reduce the risks for you in your pregnancy,” he said.

The study found a high body mass index (BMI) was related to increased rates of induced labour, gestational diabetes, pregnancy induced hypertension, operative vaginal deliveries and caesarean sections. Increased BMI was also linked to increased gestational age at delivery and increased birth weight. Obesity can also be a factor in stillbirth deaths.

Regional health providers should also use the research to help plan future needs, associate professor Teale suggested.

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