April 7th, 2010
07:06 PM ET

Obese moms increase newborns' heart risk

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Obese or morbidly obese women are more likely to give birth to a baby who has a congenital heart defect than overweight or healthy women. That's the conclusion of a new study conducted by researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Using data collected from all the women who gave birth in New York state (excluding New York City) from January 1, 1993, to December 31, 2003, the researchers found that mothers who were obese before becoming pregnant had a 15 percent increased risk of delivering a baby with a heart defect. There was no similar risk for women who were overweight.

"There are already a number of reasons why being obese is a bad thing if you're trying to have children and this is one more important one," says the study's first author, Dr. James L. Mills, a senior investigator with the NICHD's Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research.

"The more obese a woman was before she became pregnant, the greater her risk of having a baby with any congenital heart defects."

The researchers looked at more than 7,000 cases of congenital heart defects as part of the study. Using body mass index measurements from right before they became pregnant, the researchers found that women who were moderately obese, with a BMI of 30 to 39.9, had an 11 percent increased risk of delivering a baby with any congenital heart defect. That risk jumped to 33 percent when the women were morbidly obese, with a BMI of more than 40.

They concluded that obesity could account for roughly 1500 cases of congenital heart defects in newborns every year. However the study does not state that obesity is the direct cause of some specific defects, like the dangerous hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Yet Dr. Mills suspects that losing weight may decrease a mother's chance of having a baby with such defects.

"We suspect that if you lose weight, you can decrease your risk," says  Mills.

Other doctors within the medical community agree with that hypothesis. "This should be a wake-up call for any woman of
childbearing age who plans to have kids in the next ten years – get healthy now," says Dr. Paul Matherne, division head of Pediatrics Cardiology at the University of Virginia, who was not affiliated with the study.

"In the end, this study points to the fact that the less healthy you are, the more downstream effects you will have from not being healthy."

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. sue

    Obesity has become the new smoking. These people need the same public pressure put on them as well as the places that promote obesity such as fast food and restaurants that serve super-sized portions as has been put on smokers the last 20 years or so.

    These people need to be held accountable for the unnecessary burden they put on the health care system. It works! There are a lot less smokers in the country now than there used to be 20 years ago. An obesity tax on high calorie restaurant meals, fatty fast foods, high calorie junk foods like ice cream as well as sugar drinks would be a good start.

    I am a medium sized person and it has become increasingly dfficult to find clothes in my size at department stores the last 10-12 years. X sizes have become the new normal and Large has become the new small. That's scary! It's a sad comment on our gluttonous, convenience addicted society.

    April 7, 2010 at 20:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Daina

      You're right; all of this 'accomodating' what is a disaster for Americas' healthcare system never existed for smoking, alcoholism etc...and we do not need it for obesity. It IS taking in more calories than burned off (everyone did not 'suddenly' develope an endocrine problem in a generation) As long as cigarettes & alcohol are up for taxes so should be junk food (and, as far as I am concerned, clothing in 3X) As for the obese sreaming 'discrimination' would you have found it acceptable if more restaurants etc...threw out an ashtray on every table to appease the smokers? I don't want to hear your litany of excuse for being obese; take responsibility for taking in a ton more than you burn off! The fact that fewer places allowed smoking helped me quit when I was young & I did not except anyone to accomodate me...it would have only allowed me to stay in denial.

      November 9, 2010 at 14:09 | Report abuse |
    • Daina

      A huge problem is that the obese did nothing when they were only 10/15 lbs overweight and it was manageable...now they're looking at such a huge problem they no longer try. After my 3 pregnancies what little I put on I took off...

      Now, as far as the endless excuses and 'too bad, accept as am' from the abuse well, in 12-step this is known as having someone countersign your bullshit. Alcoholics/addicts get clean & sober every day in large part because there isn't a societal expection that their continued behaviour is going to be accepted & tolerated and this is something which requires an entire life change. Jist of this is that there isn't anyone out there still drinking & using who (with the exception of the potheads) who 'excepts' the driving laws etc...to start 'accepting' them. And, yes, obesities' cost to the healthcare system, if it continues unchecked, will outstrip not only smoking but alcohol as well.
      Deal with your addictions, folks, denial isn't a river in Egypt.

      November 9, 2010 at 15:05 | Report abuse |
  2. Penny

    Obesity and morbid obesity greatly increase overall risk for moms and unborn infants. It is more challenging to place labor epidurals, or a spinal anesthetic (the safest and preferred anesthetic) for cesarean section. If the mother is not a candidate for a spinal due to health history or it is a true emergency, management of the airway can be difficult (in addition to obesity, pregnancy causes swelling of tissues in the airway which can partially or completely obstruct the view of the vocal cords when attempting to place a breathing tube for general anesthesia). While anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists are trained specialists in airway management, anticipate these challenges, and have many tools available to aid in these situations, it does NOT lessen the increased risk to mother and baby.

    I am aware that no one wants to be overweight, but I truly hope that the studies coming out now will motivate prospective moms to lose weight prior to becoming pregnant, and maintain activity and good diet during pregnancy to avoid excessive weight gain. I want good outcomes for all of my patients, obese or not.

    Fankly we need to get the word out that obesity increases risk, no matter what the procedure may be.

    April 7, 2010 at 20:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. TomInTX

    It's called natural selection.
    Individuals of any population in nature who are unfit for living have offspring who are equally unfit. It's incredibly unfair to the children from a moral point of view, but nature is unforgiving. Nature punishes the parents for their behavior (addiction, obesity, alcoholism, ...) by making their offspring less likely to survive.
    Talk about anti abortion – this fits into the same theme.

    April 7, 2010 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Fatty McFatkins

    Yeah you hear that fattys? Stop using pregnancy to eat "whatever you want because it doesn't matter". Yes it does matter, to your unborn kid AND your husband. No one wants to get on top of a beached whale, let alone be seen walking next to one. Fatty.

    April 7, 2010 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RNC


      September 23, 2010 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
    • Daina

      Well, obviously someone gets them pregnant (I've seen some of these 300 pounders, don't ask me how!) I never would have had children to begin with if my husband weighed a ton (hell, never would have dated anyone who was obese; total yurn-off)
      Just saying it like it is...falling down drunks are not amusing but at least they do not blame their condition on a mysterious glandular disorder and there are a whole lot of alcoholics who have been sober for years in part because while most are in denial @ first there is no organization for 'acceptance of practicing alcoholics' and the 'Nat'l assn of fat acctepatance' doesn' need to exist, either! When your body no longer resembles any recognizable human form you have a problem.

      November 9, 2010 at 14:31 | Report abuse |
    • Daina

      Well, although I would find an obese guy a total turn off (and my husband would find me a total turn-off at 300 lbs) obviously some peple are not bothered by this. As for all the obese out there say it all you want, while I probably do have some genetic edge I do not eat more than I burn off. Still thin at age 55, I do not eat junk and if I put on 5 lbs I'd exercise it off. No one starts out at 300+ lbs, I am sure it takes a long time & lot of effort at this point but there was a time in life when the obese were only 10 or 15 lbs overweight & chose not to deal with the problem back when it was manageable (and no, I have never had an eating disorder, eat when I am hungry, stop when I am not) Nearly never go to restaurants...last time I went I felt unpleasantly stuffed as the portions are WAY too big.

      November 9, 2010 at 14:44 | Report abuse |
  5. Mimi

    Did they exclude children who had genetic risk factors or just do a "check mark" in the box for heart defects when they saw the mom was obese? My son had a defect when he was born (I border on overweight/obese) and I later found that my sister-in-law had the same heart defect and my mother-in-law was thin as a rail with her kids (though she did smoke with them).

    April 7, 2010 at 22:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Deja'

    I would like to know if the increased risk of heart defect comes from the fact that the women are obese or if its due to their poor nutrition. If it's due to the poor nutrition then maybe even if they did not lose weight before becoming pregnant they could decrease their child's risk of a heart defect.

    April 7, 2010 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Steve

    It's amazing that these fat obese women, don't care about their children. So sad. I think the division of family services should step in the minute conception takes place!

    April 8, 2010 at 00:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michelle

      You are just stupid!

      December 1, 2011 at 22:31 | Report abuse |
  8. Dr. Mama

    Just one more reason to get the obesity epidemic under control.
    Much like with smoking, this may give moms-to-be the motivation to change habits.

    An excellent research result!


    April 8, 2010 at 00:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Ann H.

    I was wondering if this obesity theory also applies to women who
    were not previously obese before pregnancy, however gained
    an excessive amount of weight during the time in which they were

    April 8, 2010 at 07:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Crystal

    33% more likely doesn't mean that 33% of morbidly obese women have babies with congenital heart defects, although many readers will assume that.

    What would have been useful is the actual numbers...that a normal weight woman has a .004% (made up) risk and an obese woman has a .1% (made up) risk.

    As with many things in pregnancy, being obese and having an "increased risk" often means a difference of a few percentage points overall...instead of a 1% risk, a 3% risk...a difference which in the end is higher, but statistically unimportant.

    Seems like another "scare the fat pregnant women/shame the fat women" article.

    Thanks a lot (/sarcasm)

    April 8, 2010 at 07:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. CShrew

    Dr. Gupta, I am really tired of these "fat people are the enemy" columns! I am an obese pregnant woman who is sailing through my pregnancy! My BP is low, my blood sugar is great, baby is perfect, not too big or any issues at all. I have known small women who have pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and the like. It is not always size. Obese women can have perfectly heathy children. Try publishing that once in a while

    April 8, 2010 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Jenn

    I disagree with this study. I was not overweight when I got pregnant and still had a child born with a CHD.

    Several people I know who have had children were obese before they got pregnant and their children do not have a CHD.

    1 in 100 babies are born with a Congenital Heart Defect. Most people don't know this because it doesn't get much attention in the news.

    April 8, 2010 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jen

    Or alternatively, this could be sharks and ice cream. Shark attacks are more prevelent when people eat more ice cream, but really the two have nothing to do with each other. They just both increase during the summer. So it could be that drinking high amounts of Cola causes heart disease in infants, and is more likely in obese and morbidly obese women.

    April 8, 2010 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. jt

    "Obese or morbidly obese women are more likely to give birth to a baby who has a congenital heart defect than overweight or healthy women"

    In other news, water is wet and the sun rose again this morning, starting what sources call "the day"...

    April 8, 2010 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. JP

    How does this even take into account women who are overweight when they get pregnant, and the genetics of heart defects that are already present in the family line?

    And, for pete's sake, do we really need to call other people names? Women in America, especially, have a hard enough time with body image. A woman who is 10 pounds overweight might see herself as being obese, and you are posting here name calling, and saying obese women don't care about their children. You are being cruel, and ignorant to boot.

    April 8, 2010 at 11:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Duke

    Saying someone is obese is not name calling. By medical definition an obese person is anyone 30 or more pounds overweight. It is not a matter of how you view yourself but how much you weigh.
    If a woman is aware that obesity compromises the health of an unborn and decides to give birth how can you not question whether she has the unbron's best interest at heart?

    April 9, 2010 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Patinka

    What the hell is wrong with you people???
    Steve: So a pregnant woman is obese – you think child protective services should take the baby? What the hell?
    Daina: "I don't want to hear your litany of excuses"? Great. Don't listen. Go off into your skinny perfect world and let everyone else just be. Continue staying out of restaurants (evil!) and patting yourself self-righteously on the back. I'm sorry for you that you can't accept others and can't understand overweight people, since you've never had to worry about it.
    Duke: Really? If a woman is overweight and "decides to give birth" that's not putting the "unbron's" (I assume you meant "unborn's") best interest first? What should she do, abort? Seriously.

    April 2, 2011 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply

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