Anorexia During Pregnancy & the Effects on the Child

Young desperate pregnant women sitting on the kitchen floor.
Worried pregnant woman sitting on kitchen floor (Image: JarekJoepera/iStock/Getty Images)

Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder that involves dieting or starving oneself obsessively to avoid gaining weight. Anorexia can be a lifelong, chronic condition, but can also become a problem during pregnancy. Between 85 and 95 percent of anorexics are women, and many anorexics have a body weight that is below what it should be for that person’s height, according to Women’s Health. Women of average weight are supposed to gain between 25 and 35 pounds – and underweight women between 28 and 40 pounds – to help ensure a healthy pregnancy. An eating disorder characterized by actively stifling weight gain can have dangerous consequences for an unborn child.

Hindered Brain Development

As babies grow in the womb, they need certain nutrients to help them develop. For example, folic acid helps to establish the brain and spinal column, while protein helps cells reproduce. Malnutrition can hinder proper brain development by slowing the movement and connection of neurons in the brain. Fetal malnutrition has been linked to lower IQ and learning disabilities later in life.

Low Birth Weight

Low birth weight is characterized by babies who are born weighing less than 5 1/2 pounds at birth. Babies who are malnourished while in the womb run the risk of being born with low birth weight. Also, low birth weight can be the result of premature birth – a very real risk for anorexic women who are pregnant. Low birth weight babies are at higher risk for serious medical problems, such as respiratory distress syndrome, brain bleeds and heart defects. Low birth weight is also associated with hypertension later in life, according to an article published in the October 1997 issue of "BMJ."

Miscarriage and Stillbirth

Miscarriage occurs when a fetus is lost prior to the 20th week of pregnancy, while stillbirth occurs when the fetus is lost after the 20th week of pregnancy. Pregnant women who suffer from anorexia have an increased risk for both, due to stress placed on the fetus as a result of anorexia-related health problems in the mother. What’s more, a British study published in a 2007 issue of “The British Journal of Psychiatry” found that anorexic women are significantly more likely to have multiple miscarriages, even after successfully recovering from anorexia.

Developmental Issues

Poor nutrition and calorie intake while in the womb can have a number of developmental effects on a baby that persist later in life. For example, babies of mothers who suffer from anorexia are at a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, and even have a 35 percent increase in their risk for death due to heart problems, according to Epigee Women’s Health. They are also at increased risk for suffering from learning disabilities and mood disorders later in life, as well as physical impairments such as cerebral palsy, liver problems and cleft palate.

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