About half the pregnant women in Australia are overweight or obese. Their babies tend to be heavier than desired at birth, a condition that often leads to the baby’s own struggle with excess weight during childhood. When the excess weight lingers into the child’s adulthood, the risk it will develop chronic weight-related medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes escalates. An important new study -- the world’s largest -- indicates that counseling the mother on healthier lifestyle choices during pregnancy often results in the delivery of a baby of healthy weight.

The LIMIT Study followed the singleton pregnancies of 2,212 women, each of whom was either clinically overweight or obese according to her body mass index (BMI); all measured a BMI of 25 or higher. Each woman joined the study between the 10th and 20th week of her pregnancy and each was under the obstetric care of one of three hospitals in South Australia from 2008 through 2011. Jodie Dodd, a professor at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Institute and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, led the research team.

Dodd randomly separated the women into two groups. The study group was given informational packages discussing healthy lifestyle choices during pregnancy, such as regular exercise and the value of a healthy diet as recommended by the Australian medical system. This group also received healthy lifestyle counseling periodically throughout pregnancy. Each woman in this group also received standard obstetric care throughout the study period.

The second (control) group also received standard obstetric care but did not get the lifestyle information or counseling.

No woman in the study had either type 1 or type 2 diabetes before pregnancy nor was anyone put on a specific diet or exercise regimen. None was encouraged in any way to lose weight.

The goal of the study was to see if the women getting counseling would have fewer babies weighing 4 kilograms (kg) or more; that’s 8.8 pounds in the United States. Four kilograms marks the birth weight threshold for designation as high birth weight, which puts the baby at risk for health complications throughout life.

Women carrying excess weight tend to have larger babies than women of a healthier weight. The women in both the study groups did have the expected number of large babies but the counseled group had 18% fewer babies of high birth weight than those in the control group.

Dodd describes her study results as “a very important finding” that suggests increased awareness of healthy choices during pregnancy can have lasting beneficial health effects on the baby.

Source: Dodd, Jodie M. “Antenatal lifestyle advice for women who are overweight or obese: LIMIT randomized trial.” BMJ. BMJ Publishing Group Ltd. Feb. 2014. Web. Feb 22, 2014.