Study: Moms' Obesity Tied to Autism
Pregnant women have another reason to watch their weight and exercise. In a new study, moms who were obese during pregnancy were about 67 percent more likely than normal-weight women to have autistic children. Findings were published Monday in Pediatrics. Though the researchers said the study doesn't prove that obesity causes autism, they cautioned that it's worrisome, especially considering rising U.S. obesity rates. If future research does indeed substantiate the findings, "the good part is, it's modifiable," study author Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of California-Davis, told the Los Angeles Times. "It can be controlled." The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder. Autism, a developmental disorder, is characterized by symptoms like problems with socialization, communication, and behavior.
Signs Your Child Could Have Autism
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that one in every 88 children has autism—up from one in 156 in 2002—you might be wondering how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the developmental disorder.
While it's not clear what's driving the uptick in prevalence, and the precise causes of autism are still unknown, experts are calling for earlier diagnosis. "We have to get this down to 18 months of age to truly have the greatest impact," says Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. Doctors have gotten better at identifying autism symptoms in younger children—four is the average age of diagnosis—but "four years old is still too late," he says. Frieden stresses that the earlier a child is identified with autism, the more likely it is that behavioral intervention will make the disability more manageable. Parents may be able to spot symptoms of autism before a child's first birthday, says Coleen Boyle, who heads up the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. "Parents know their child best, but if they do have concerns, the important thing is not to wait [to seek help]," she says. Susan Hyman, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics subcommittee on autism, strongly recommends having children screened by a child development specialist at 18, 24, and 30 months. [Read more: Signs Your Child Could Have Autism.]
How to Have a Happier, Healthier, Smarter Baby
Pregnant women have tweaked their diets, tried prenatal education tricks, and attempted whatever else baby books and doctors have recommended—all in the quest to have happier, healthier, and perhaps even smarter babies. Mothers-to-be have latched onto fish oil, to cite one example, because of studies crediting omega-3 fatty acids with brighter babies and a lower risk of postpartum depression, U.S. News reported in 2010.
Research suggests none of the above. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of more than 2,000 pregnant women who took either fish oil or vegetable oil capsules found no benefit to cognitive or language skills of babies born to fish oil-taking mothers. (Nor did fish oil seem to alleviate their postpartum depression.)
So what can women do to enhance their babies' prenatal experiences and give them a leg-up when they enter the world? In her book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, journalist Annie Murphy Paul explores the burgeoning field of fetal origins, which examines how the conditions we encounter before birth influence us down the line. U.S. News spoke with Paul, who shared her insight on which prenatal behaviors withstand scientific scrutiny—and which are shaky at best. [Read more: How to Have a Happier, Healthier, Smarter Baby.]