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Parental obesity may be tied to developmental delays in kids

A pregnant woman touches her stomach as people practice yoga in this June 20, 2012, file photo. Childre of obese parents may be more likely to experience certain developmental delays early in childhood, a recent study suggests. In an ideal scenario, the parents would be a healthy body weight prior to conception. (Reuters file photo)

Kids born to obese parents may be more likely to experience certain developmental delays early in childhood, a recent study suggests.

Based on parents' reports, children with obese mothers were 67 percent more likely to have delayed fine motor skill development by age 3 compared to kids with normal or underweight mothers, even after accounting for the father's weight, the study found.

With obese fathers, children were 71 percent more likely to have deficits in personal and social skills after taking their mothers' weight into account, the study also found.

When both parents were obese, kids were almost three times more likely to struggle with problem-solving.

"The immediate take home message is that everyone — male or female, contemplating parenthood or not — should try to achieve a healthy body weight, through appropriate diet and lifestyle," said lead study author Edwina Yeung, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

The study assessed delays based on questionnaires completed by parents, and so it can't prove that obesity directly causes developmental problems, Yeung added by email.

"We don't have actual diagnoses for the kids," Yeung said. "At this point, we don't know whether the kids will have problems, or whether they'll outgrow what we found on the (screening questionnaires)."

Yeung and colleagues examined data from questionnaires parents completed for 3,759 singleton babies and 1,062 non-related twins, when the children were 4, 8, 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36 months old.

Questions screened for developmental delays in five areas: fine motor skills, gross motor skills, communication, personal and social functioning, and problem-solving ability.

Researchers examined the odds of developmental delays associated with parental obesity after accounting for other factors that can impact these milestones such as parents' age, race or ethnicity, education and income levels, marital status, health insurance and smoking history.

Even though the study didn't examine how parents' obesity might influence child development, it's possible obese mothers might have babies more prone to inflammation, which can in turn impact neurological development in children, the authors note in Pediatrics.

Obese fathers might pass certain genetic material on to their children that makes delays more likely, though less is known about how men's weight impacts children, the researchers point out.

Limitations of the study include the lack of data from follow-up exams to confirm whether children actually had developmental deficits, the researchers wrote.

Still, the findings add to a growing body of evidence linking maternal obesity in particular to neurodevelopmental problems such as autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said Elinor Sullivan, a researcher at the University of Portland and Oregon Health and Science University who wasn't involved in the study.

"In an ideal scenario, the parents would be a healthy body weight prior to conception," Sullivan added by email.

If parents are overweight or obese upon conception, there are still many things that they can do to benefit their child's development, Sullivan said.

These include following a healthy diet, getting moderate or even mild exercise, and avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke, alcohol, and chemicals found in cleaning and personal hygiene products.

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