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Low maternal weight linked to short stature in children

Posted:  Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Indian children, in comparison to their Western and African counterparts, are shorter in stature. The reason behind this discrepancy has been discovered: maternal underweight (body mass index or BMI <18.5) prior to conception coupled with less weight gain during pregnancy.

These results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that 42.2 % of pre-pregnant Indian women are underweight compared to only 16.5% in case of sub-Saharan African mothers. The study also reports that pre-pregnancy underweight in India is 7 percentage points higher than that of the average women. This is particularly true for mothers in the socioeconomically disadvantaged stratum.

According to the researchers, age, lower socio-economic standing, air pollution and lack of hygiene are four main drivers that cause Indian women to be underweight. Young women in well to-do families have sub-standard intake because of their lower social standing. Lack of hygiene has been considered a major cause; open defecation and related infectious diseases such as diarrhoea as well as exposure to these conditions can result in women being underweight, even wealthy women using washrooms.

The researchers further observed that pre-pregnancy women who are underweight do not compensate for it by gaining “adequate” weight during pregnancy. Weight gain during pregnancy aids the growth of the baby before birth and prepares the woman's body to have enough fat stores to produce lots of high quality breast milk. This is of utmost importance because the child relies on the mother for nutrition during the first 1000 days of life. They researchers found that feeding children with more and better food after birth does not compensate for poor nutrition during pregnancy.

“To my knowledge, India has no national guidelines for healthy weight gain during pregnancy. Countries that do have guidelines base them on large studies of how pre-pregnancy body mass and weight gain during pregnancy predict infant survival and infant health,” said Diane Coffey, a researcher at Princeton University. She urges the Indian Government to develop some guidelines based on large-scale studies.

Thus it is indeed important to acknowledge the limitations to maternal weight gain and address them to ensure a good health of not just of the infant but also of the mother.

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