August 08, 2022

Multi-Generation Health Effects: How Nutrition During Pregnancy And Lactation Can Impact The Health Of The Child Through Adulthood

Multi-Generation Health Effects: How Nutrition During Pregnancy And Lactation Can Impact The Health Of The Child Through Adulthood

Written by Pamela Lim,

Through each phase of the life cycle, a mother's nutrition can affect the health of her child. Nutrition and lifestyle before and during pregnancy, lactation, infancy and early childhood have been shown to increase survival rates, fosters proper growth, development, and has long-term effects on later health of the child, including the risk of common non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

How can you as a mother ensure that your child receives the best from you, right from the moment of conception?

Nutrition During Pre-conception
It is widely acknowledged that the focus on preconception health offers an important, newly recognised opportunity for improving the health of future generations. Good health and nutrition before conception are central to a mother’s ability to meet the nutrient demands of pregnancy and breastfeeding, and are vital to the healthy development of her embryo, foetus, infant and child.

Many women and adolescent girls are poorly nourished because of the inadequacy or imbalance of their diets, leading to underweight/obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Women who enter pregnancy with unhealthy lifestyles are characterised by poor quality diet, low levels of physical activity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption which remain prevalent around the time of conception. To address this, it is crucial to encourage the adoption of good dietary and lifestyle habits at all stages, starting in childhood and adolescence.

Nutrition During Pregnancy
Pregnancy can be a difficult time for many mothers, but it is important that they are aware that what they eat may affect their offspring.

Poor nutrition while the baby is in the womb and just after birth can lead to:

- Growth retardation

- Delayed psychosocial development

- Cognitive, education and behavioural problems

- Increased risk of later psychiatric disorders 

At the beginning of each pregnancy, the focus should be on eating a healthy diet with foods rich in critical nutrients, rather than eating more. The concept of “eating for 2” is a myth that should be dispelled. Pregnant women should consume a balanced diet and should increase dietary energy intake in late pregnancy by no more than about 10% above the recommended energy intake in non-pregnant women.

Much of the focus on nutrition in pregnancy relates to the global increase in obesity and rise in obesity among women and especially gestational diabetes and foetal macrosomia are potential for longer-term impact on offspring health.

In view of maternal obesity, excessive weight gain, as well as diet in pregnancy which leads to micronutrient deficiencies that may impact foetal development and childhood health e.g. bringing about childhood adiposity and cardiovascular risk, it is of paramount importance to focus on the nutritional status in pregnancy not only for the health of the mother, but also her offspring.

A nutrient-rich maternal diet before and during pregnancy is associated with improved fetal health, more appropriate birth weight, and increased rates of maternal and infant survival.

The mother as well as the growing foetus needs iron to meet the high demands of the forming of red blood cells. Calcium is essential, both during pregnancy and lactation, for proper formation of bones and teeth of the offspring, for secretion of breast-milk rich in calcium, and to prevent osteoporosis in the mother.  Aside from calcium, other nutrients such as iron, folate, calcium, vitamin D, and protein are also important for both mothers and babies.

Nutrition During Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding women should consume a balanced diet providing adequate nutrient intakes and promoting reduction of post-partum weight retention.

All the nutrients that are found in one food are also found in others, so a mother can still get the nutrients she needs. For example, omega fatty acids can be gained through algal or soybean oil, walnuts, chia, hemp and flax seeds instead of fish.

Benefits of Breastfeeding
Balanced maternal nutrition before and during the breastfeeding period can affect maternal nutrient status and healthy body weight, as well as the infant supply of nutrients with breastmilk. Therefore, breastfeeding should be promoted, protected and supported.

Breastfeeding is associated with numerous benefits and is universally recommended as the preferred method of infant feeding. Compared with breastfeeding, feeding conventional infant formula induces a higher average weight gain during the first year of life and beyond. Overall, breastfeeding is associated with a modest risk reduction for later overweight and obesity in childhood and adult life by about 12–14% or more.

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life; and introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.

It’s essential that mothers and babies get sufficient quality nutrients. This should be a priority before and during pregnancy, breastfeeding, early childhood and all stages of the life cycle.

A mother’s efforts to inculcate a healthy nutritional lifestyle would result in more positive role modelling. Special attention must be given to family-based approaches to incorporating good nutritional habits. Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a nutritious diet with complete vitamins and minerals is therefore important for mothers, fathers, and children alike, and to have the knowledge and confidence to make these healthy decisions.