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Helping babies who are at risk of becoming obese

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What did the project achieve?

“Our study uncovers new evidence suggesting that the chances of a child becoming obese may begin when they are still in the womb – and excitingly, opens up new opportunities for reducing that risk,” says Professor Lucilla Poston of King’s College London.

Childhood obesity is a major public health concern. The latest figures show that one in five children aged 10 and 11 in England are now classified as obese – increasing their chances of developing a range of health problems over their lives.1

Although childhood obesity is a complex issue, the evidence is mounting that children are more likely to develop the condition if their mother was obese during pregnancy. Professor Poston’s study was looking at whether improving the diet and increasing physical activity in obese pregnant women led to a healthier balance of the important molecules in the blood of their babies at birth.

“Although we measured a wide range of molecules, we didn’t identify any changes in babies’ blood associated with improvements to their mother’s lifestyle during pregnancy,” says Professor Poston.

However, the researchers did make another important discovery – linking increases in a group of fatty acids in the babies’ umbilical cord blood with their mothers’ blood sugar levels during pregnancy.

“Importantly for the baby, these changes were also associated with a higher birthweight – as well as an increased speed of weight gain between birth and six months of age,” says Professor Poston.

Their results also provided the first evidence to suggest the involvement of a particular growth hormone in not only determining a baby’s weight at birth, but also at six months.

“Our discoveries provide new insights about potential factors associated with a baby’s growth and body composition in early infancy – which importantly, may be modifiable by improving blood sugar levels in obese pregnant women,” says Professor Poston.


1.NHS Digital, Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet: England 2018: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet-england-2018 [published 4 April 2018]

This research was completed on

More than a third of children in the UK are overweight or obese.1 Worldwide, over 40 million children under five are affected.2 Being obese puts children at risk of serious health problems. For example, children who are obese are more prone to breathing difficulties, fractures and high blood pressure. They can also have early signs of heart disease and diabetes. Professor Lucilla Poston, of King’s College London, is investigating how expectant mothers’ own weight during pregnancy affects their babies. She hopes to find new ways to help prevent childhood obesity that start working before a child has even been born.

How are babies’ lives affected now?

“Being obese can badly affect children in many ways,” says Professor Poston. “Children who are obese can develop health problems during childhood, including diabetes and liver disease. They often don’t do as well as other children at school and are more likely to be bullied. They are also likely to carry on being obese when they grow up.”

“Lower levels of physical activity and easy availability of cheap, high-calorie foods are widely thought to be responsible for childhood obesity, but attempts to change these things have, with a few notable exceptions, had limited success,” adds Professor Poston.

A growing body of evidence suggests children are more likely to be obese if their mother was obese during pregnancy. It’s important to study this further if we are to find better ways to tackle the obesity epidemic – one in five pregnant women in the UK is obese at the time of the first antenatal booking.3

How could this research help?

“We aim to help expectant mothers who are obese during pregnancy,” says Professor Poston. “We’re studying why babies who are ‘exposed’ to their mother’s obesity while in the womb may grow up fatter than the children of thin women – and how we might prevent this.”

“Our research shows giving lifestyle advice to pregnant women who are obese can help them to improve their diet, take a little more exercise and put on less weight during pregnancy,” adds Professor Poston. “What’s more, the women’s babies are thinner at six months of age.”

“In this project, we’re studying blood samples taken from babies at birth to learn how obesity during pregnancy may predispose babies to carry more weight at six months of age, and how changes to the mothers’ lifestyle might help. Identifying the mechanisms involved could enable us to develop new ways to prevent childhood obesity that start working before a child has even been born.”


1. van Jaarsveld CHM et al. Childhood obesity trends from primary care electronic health records in England between 1994 and 2013: population-based cohort study. Arch Dis Child 2015; 100: 214–219.

2. World Health Organisation. Obesity and overweight. Fact sheet number 311. Updated January 2015. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/ Website accessed 17 December 2015.

3. Reynolds RM et al. Maternal obesity during pregnancy and premature mortality from cardiovascular event in adult offspring: follow-up of 1 323 275 person years. BMJ 2013; 347: f4539.




Project Leader Professor Lucilla Poston BSc(Hons) PhD FRCOG FMedSci
Project Team Dr Dharmintra Pasupathy MSc PhD MRCOGMr Paul T Seed MSc CStatDr Nashita Patel BSc(Hons) MBBS
Project Location Division of Women's Health, St Thomas' Hospital, King's College London
Project duration 1 year
Date awarded 24 November 2015
Project start date 1 March 2016
Project end date 28 February 2017
Grant amount £101,300
Grant code GN2456


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