Foetal programming

During pregnancy, the baby is exposed to environmental factors through the mother and even gene expressivity can be sustainably altered. Environmental factors, nutrition and the health status of the mother play an important role in this process, which is called fetal programming.

If the mother is overweight or obese, the baby may be over-nourished before birth and at a higher risk of becoming overweight or developing diabetes later in life. But also the mother herself has a higher risk of complications in pregnancy, for example developing gestational diabetes mellitus or hypertensive disorders; also labour complications are more common.

An imbalanced, low-nutrient diet (as in the case of mothers with eating disorders) can cause a baby to be undernourished before birth. Undernourishment in the womb may also lead to illnesses of the child later in life. Certain illnesses, such as preeclampsia or kidney diseases, as well as smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, can restrict the growth of the unborn child and lead to a lower birth weight (LBW).

If the baby is undernourished before birth, the baby learns to cope with less. As a result, the child’s body will not be expecting the comparatively large amount of nourishment offered once the baby is born. This imbalance may cause the child to become overweight and develop high blood pressure or diabetes.

Babies with a low birth weight do not need to quickly reach their appropriate weight. It appears that (well-intentioned) overfeeding rather increases the probability to develop certain illnesses later in life. Parents together with a paediatrician should thus devise a feeding plan to reach normal weight of the child during a longer period of time.

In either case of over- or under nourishment of the baby, breastfeeding is the best nutrition. It not only helps mother and child to bond but can prevent the development of many possible health problems later in life for both.