Don’t Blame it on Baby Weight; New U-M Research Finds Parental Lifestyle and Aging More Likely Causes of Higher Weight

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — For Olga Yakusheva, PhD, understanding the relationships between weight gain, pregnancy and motherhood is a professional objective that includes personal experience.

“I gained 70 pounds with my first baby,” said Dr. Yakusheva, a University of Michigan School of Nursing associate professor. “For my second pregnancy, I counted calories, weighed myself every day and still gained 60 pounds. I felt terrible, and many women feel that anxiety about gaining pregnancy weight because they’re already anticipating pressure to lose the weight, from others and themselves.”

Dr. Yakusheva started paying attention to women who said they needed to lose the weight they put on while pregnant, commonly referred to as “baby weight,” even years after giving birth. Dr. Yakusheva, an economist with a background in health services and patient outcomes research, also saw those who didn’t have children facing slow but steady waistline increases, so she began investigating weight comparisons between women with and without children.

Mother with strollerIn a study of nearly 30,000 women who had given birth between one and four times, Dr. Yakusheva and research colleagues found that most women never returned to their pregravid (pre-pregnancy) body weight after birth; however their weight at 1-2 years after giving birth was nearly identical to what they could have been expected to weigh had they remained childless. It is not until the toddler years that a higher trajectory of weight gain became evident for mothers as compared to women who didn’t have children. The typical age-related weight gain for women is 1.94 pounds a year. The researchers found women with toddlers gained almost a full additional pound annually.

The reason many mothers have higher rates of weight gain is due to lifestyle, suspects Dr. Yakusheva. “Mothers tend to put the needs of their children first so they might not be exercising or taking care of themselves. It might also be little things like finishing the food on their child’s plate or spending more time sitting with their kids reading or watching a movie.”

Dr. Yakusheva wants to break the myth of lingering baby weight as a reason for being overweight. “Many women really crank up their diet and exercise for a short time to get back to their pre-pregnancy weight, and often get discouraged by the results. But it’s much better to take a holistic approach focused on a long-term healthy lifestyle before, during, and after pregnancy,” she explained.

She also strongly emphasizes that these findings should not make mothers feel guilty. “Understanding the demands of motherhood and age-related weight gain is important for promoting positive expectations of body image after pregnancy. As long as women are healthy, that is what matters,” she stated.

Dr. Yakusheva encourages health care providers to counsel women about weight changes expected with age, and to make them aware of subtle ways parenthood could exacerbate the aging-related weight gain trend over many years.

The findings, “Maternal Weight after Childbirth versus Aging-Related Weight Changes” are published in the Women’s Health Issues journal.