Vickà Versele analysed the body composition, physical activity and sitting behaviour of 114 couples at the beginning of pregnancy. She also looked at the mother’s weight evolution during pregnancy and the growth curves of the first child from birth. "Our focus on the impact of mums and dads on their baby's weight is unique," Versele said. "We know that the mother’s lifestyle has an impact on the baby. However, most studies focus only on mothers and pay little attention to the impact of fathers.
The study reveals surprising connections:
- Daughters of fathers in the group with the highest sitting behaviour have a higher weight curve than daughters of fathers who exhibit less daily sitting behaviour.
- When the mother gains more weight during pregnancy, the weight curve of their daughters is higher during the first year of life.
- When mothers exercise more at the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, their daughters have a lower weight curve during the first year of life.
- No associations were found between parental characteristics and the weight curves of the boys, nor for the height curves of all infants.
"Weight, like height, gives an indication of children's health. We now know that the lifestyle of both parents has an impact on the weight curve of girls during the first year of life. A higher weight curve could possibly result in a higher risk of developing overweight or obesity in later life. Explaining the results still involves some guesswork. "There may possibly be an epigenetic influence, meaning that environmental factors and the lifestyle of parents affects the expression of genes. We know from research that what fathers eat and how much they exercise can change the epigenome of the sperm cell, for example."
To avoid passing an unhealthy lifestyle down to next generations, health interventions should be aimed at both parents. "The results highlight the need for health interventions focusing on more physical activity and less sitting behaviour, which also involve the dads," says Versele. "Reaching both parents with health programmes is crucial, especially when you know that dads can also encourage their partners to exercise more."
Health interventions are also best started early on in the pregnancy and ideally before conception.
TRANSPARENTS is a study of changes in body composition and lifestyle in couples having their first child, from preconception to one year postpartum. The study contributes to a better understanding of the life stage of having a first child. An understanding of this critical period when people are at risk of gaining weight or exhibiting unhealthy changes in energy balance related behaviours can help in the development of programs and the prevention of negative lifestyle changes.
TRANSPARENTS consists of a team of researchers from VUB (research group MOVE) and KU Leuven (research group REALIFE).
Interview request or more information? Contact Vickà Versele at [email protected] and +32 494 79 37 66.