A new U.K. study adds to a growing body of evidence that links a child’s early environment before and soon after birth to their chance of becoming obese later in life.

The study looked at the combined effects of a variety of individual early life risk factors. University of Southampton researchers believe that having a greater number of these risk factors is a strong predictor of being overweight or obese in childhood.

Scientists from the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit looked at five early life obesity risk factors: a short duration of breastfeeding (less than one month) and four maternal factors during pregnancy: obesity, excess pregnancy weight gain, smoking and low vitamin D status.

Their research shows at age four, children with four or five of these factors were 3.99 times more likely to be overweight or obese than children who had experienced none, and fat mass was, on average, 19 percent higher.

By age six, the risk increased so that these children were 4.65 times more likely to be overweight or obese and fat mass was 47 percent higher. Importantly, these differences were not explained by other factors, such as the children’s quality of diet or physical activity levels.

Study results have been published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers analyzed data collected from 991 children taking part in the Southampton Women’s Survey, one of the largest studies of mothers recruited before pregnancy, along with their infants and children.

Professor Sian Robinson, who led the study, says: “Early life may be a critical period when appetite and regulation of energy balance are programmed, which has lifelong consequences for the risk of gaining excess weight.

“Although the importance of early prevention is recognized, much of the focus is on school-aged children. Our findings suggest that interventions to prevent obesity need to start earlier, even before conception, and that having a healthy body weight and not smoking at this time could be key.”

Dr.¬†Cyrus Cooper, director of the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, believes the study will help investigators understand how a mother’s diet and lifestyle influences the development and body composition of her child.

“The large differences in the risk of being overweight in childhood that were shown in this study highlight the importance of early life risk factors,” he said.

“These findings could have important implications for obesity prevention policy and will help us to design future interventions aimed at optimizing body composition, with benefits for lifelong health.”

Source: University of South Hampton

Pregnant woman smoking photo available from Shutterstock