Researchers from the University of Oxford in the UK and the University of California, Berkeley in the USA recently published a study that shows patterns of fetal abdominal growth linked to maternal lipid metabolites that track newborn growth, adiposity, and development into childhood as early as the fifth month of pregnancy.

  • 3,500 babies and their mothers were tracked for the study over the course of six countries, from early pregnancy until childhood.
  • Very early in pregnancy, the mother’s blood lipid metabolites have an impact on the development of the fetal abdomen.
  • Both the growth of the fetal abdomen and the mother’s blood lipid metabolites very early in pregnancy influence the child’s weight and body fat at 2 years of age
  • The findings could lead to earlier identification of infants at risk of overweight and obesity – one of the most pressing global public health issues

These fetal growth patterns show a complicated relationship between maternal and fetal nutrition early in pregnancy that affects postnatal weight and ultimately adult health. They are also related to blood flow and nutrient transfer by the placenta.

In six nations (Brazil, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand, and the United Kingdom), the researchers used serial fetal ultrasound scans to track the development of over 3,500 babies throughout pregnancy. They also analyzed blood samples taken from the women early in pregnancy and from the umbilical cord at birth. They continued to keep an eye on the infants’ growth and development until they were 2 years old.

“This is the first comprehensive evidence, across geographic populations, of the complex interaction between maternal and fetal metabolism that regulates, early in pregnancy, unique fetal trajectories linked specifically to weight, adiposity, and development during childhood,” said José Villar, Professor of Perinatal Medicine at the University of Oxford and co-leader of the study. The result adds to our earlier research, which showed that fetal head growth trajectories were related to several developmental, behavioral, visual, and growth outcomes at age 2. In layman’s words, this means that kids’ bodies and brains develop independently and early on, while still in the womb.

The study’s co-leader and professor of fetal medicine at the University of Oxford, Aris Papageorghiou, said: “The study is exceptional for a variety of reasons. Every pregnancy was accurately timed by ultrasound at less than 14 weeks’ gestation, and paediatric and ultrasound specialists from all over the world were trained to measure fetal and child growth uniformly using the same equipment. All fetuses were also scanned every five weeks with the same type of ultrasound machine.

The significance of the first 1000 days of life in shaping future health outcomes has been widely discussed. In this study, different patterns of fetal abdominal growth and placental transfer are demonstrated, along with their connections to long-term health. The discovery of an association with maternal lipid metabolism early in pregnancy also offers novel insights into the relationship between the mother’s diet and health and how this influences the adiposity of her offspring.

“This landmark study has provided valuable new insights into the biological roots of childhood obesity, which is one of the most pressing public health issues facing governments around the world,” said Stephen Kennedy, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Oxford and co-leader of the study. The findings might help identify infants at risk for obesity earlier. These findings must be considered by policymakers in their attempts to stop the impending obesity epidemic and all of its anticipated negative social and economic effects.