Healthy Habits During Pregnancy Can Prevent Obesity in Toddlers, Study Shows

pregnant woman at home

Key Takeaways

  • A study finds that changing the habits of obese women can positively impact the health of babies before they are born.
  • Maternal obesity can affect her child’s weight and health through age three.
  • Young children benefit from their mothers incorporating healthy eating and exercise.

A 2020 study in the UK journal Pediatric Obesity investigated the connection between the obesity of babies and toddlers and the habits and health of their mothers. According to the UK Pregnancy Better Eating and Activity Trial (UPBEAT) “The causal pathways suggest that maternal obesity may contribute to the development of childhood obesity through exposures during in utero development.”

Childhood obesity is an international concern, and the World Health Organization reports that 38 million children under the age of five are overweight or obese, as well as 340 million children over the age of five.

What the Study Showed

Over the course of eight weeks, 1555 women who were considered obese with no pre-existing conditions were given a healthy diet intervention and were instructed to gradually increase daily activity. Their stats were measured at the beginning and the end of the study, and again when the children were three years old.

Of the women who implemented gradual changes to their eating and exercise routines, their babies had fewer skin (fat) folds than the control group at the six-month mark. These women also ended up gaining less weight and adopting better long-term habits.

At the three year visit, the majority of the children weighed less, had fewer skin folds, and a lower resting heart rate, which points to a reduced risk of cardiovascular complications. Another interesting data point is that their mothers were also less likely to be smokers.

Healthy Eating Goes a Long Way

The three-year check up showed that those moms who had interventions consumed more protein, fewer saturated fats, and less sugar, evidence that these self-reported dietary changes had continued beyond the eight-week trial.

While fats are necessary for fetal development, quality matters. A diet high in saturated fat can negatively the mother and the baby's health. Unhealthy fats can affect an infant's temperament and increase the risk of anxiety, and they could lead to insulin resistance and/or hypertension, which can increase a mother's risk of gestational diabetes or preeclampsia.

High sugar intake should also be avoided, as studies have found that excessive consumption of sugary beverages during pregnancy is tied to childhood obesity. These findings all point to the long term benefits of continuing healthy eating habits through pregnancy.

Babies Benefit From Active Pregnancies 

Christine Sterling, MD, board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, encourages patients to strive for a healthy pregnancy, and she believes that as long as there are no contraindications, exercise has a positive impact on the mother and development of the fetus.

She explains, “People who exercise in pregnancy, ideally 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, have increased chances of a vaginal delivery. Exercise may also help prevent pregnancy conditions such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. Patients who are physically fit and well-nourished can experience an easier and faster birth recovery in many circumstances.”

Exercise also impacts the mental health of the mother, providing an overall sense of wellbeing. This improved sense of wellbeing can contribute to an easier pregnancy and less stress on the growing fetus, reducing the likelihood of an epigenetic effect on the fetus’s cells or premature birth.

Physical therapist Kimberly Howell is also a proponent for healthy movement and recommends it for her clients who are not bedridden. She explains, “Exercising during pregnancy can help manage a safe weight gain, improve mood, aid sleep quality, and help prepare your body for labor and delivery.”

Howell believes that the benefits of exercise can outweigh the risks, which are highly individual. The fear of exercise being too strenuous can be what causes a woman to become sedentary during her pregnancy. She states, “The first thing most patients want to know is which exercises are considered safe, and this answer truly varies for people. For example, running can be a perfectly safe form of exercise for an established runner, but I don’t typically recommend starting a running program during pregnancy.” 

Kimberly Howell, PT, DPT

Exercising during pregnancy can help manage a safe weight gain, improve mood, aid sleep quality, and help prepare your body for labor and delivery.

— Kimberly Howell, PT, DPT

For women who are wondering how to determine if they are working too hard, Howell says to look for these warning signs, “If a patient is presenting with a headache or dizziness during or after exercise, this is a sign that we need to change the demand on the body. Additionally, incontinence, pelvic pain/pressure, or bleeding are indicators that the form of exercise may be too demanding for the body.”

What This Means For You

Efforts to achieve a healthy pregnancy should not cease once you have conceived. Changes to eating habits and adding safe exercise can make for an easier pregnancy and a healthy baby.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dalrymple, K. and Tydeman, F., 2020. Adiposity And Cardiovascular Outcomes In Three‐Year‐Old Children Of Participants In UPBEAT , An RCT Of A Complex Intervention In Pregnant Women With Obesity.

  2. Gustafsson HC, Kuzava SE, Werner EA, Monk C. Maternal dietary fat intake during pregnancy is associated with infant temperament. Dev Psychobiol. 2016;58(4):528-535. doi:10.1002/dev.21391

  3. Beverage Intake During Pregnancy and Childhood Adiposity

    Matthew W. Gillman, Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Silvia Fernandez-Barres, Ken Kleinman, Elsie M. Taveras, Emily Oken

    Pediatrics Aug 2017, 140 (2) e20170031; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-0031

  4. Kołomańska D, Zarawski M, Mazur-bialy A. Physical Activity and Depressive Disorders in Pregnant Women-A Systematic Review. Medicina (Kaunas). 2019;55(5)

  5. M R, B P. Epigenetic Signature of Chronic Maternal Stress Load During Pregnancy Might be a Potential Biomarker for Spontaneous Preterm Birth. Balkan J Med Genet. 2018;21(2):27-33.

By Tonya Russell
Tonya Russell is a Philadelphia-based journalist with a passion for mental health, wellness, and culture.