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Even Before Pregnancy, Your Health Matters: Mom’s Obesity Linked To Higher Risk Of Baby’s Death

(Ernesto Andrade/Flickr)

(Ernesto Andrade/Flickr)

You know how it goes: The moment the pregnancy test is positive, you give up alcohol, you cut out coffee, you try to make every bite count and limit your weight gain to healthy norms. You’re suddenly responsible for two.

That’s the usual strategy. But new data suggest that perhaps it’s time to rethink that logic — it could be, by the time you get that pregnancy test result, you’re already late for the train.

Why? According to a recent study based on a sweeping analysis of more than 6 million births, there appears to be a robust link between a woman’s weight even before she gets pregnant and her baby’s risk of dying in her first year.

The numbers are small, but the researchers say they are significant:

Among normal-weight moms, about four in 1,000 babies die after birth; among moderately obese moms, that rises to nearly six babies per 1,000 and among morbidly obese moms, it’s more than eight babies per 1,000 live births.

(To be precise, “normal weight” for a 5-foot-4 tall woman before she’s pregnant is defined from 110-144 pounds; moderately obese is considered 175-204 pounds, and morbidly obese is 235 pounds or more.)

Obesity And Infant Deaths

Eugene Declercq, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, puts it this way: If you are truly obese, with a Body Mass Index of 40 or above before pregnancy, your baby has a 70 percent higher mortality risk compared with a normal weight woman. (This holds true even after controlling for a wide array of risk factors in the study, including race, ethnicity, education, insurance coverage, diabetes and hypertension, he said.)

“Since this involves pre-pregnancy obesity it emphasizes the importance of thinking of women’s health in general and not just when they’re pregnant, which has too often been the case.”

– Eugene Declercq

It’s the persistent association between BMI and infant mortality that makes the research compelling, Declercq said: As BMI increases above normal, the infant death rate increases consistently too.

“This links up women’s health and kids’ health in a really important way,” Declercq said in an interview. What it suggests, he adds, is that pre-pregnancy BMI still had a pretty strong relationship to both neonatal mortality (death in the first 28 days) and post-neonatal mortality (death in the first 28-365 days). “No matter how you cut it, that relationship is robust.”

The researchers also wondered whether pre-pregnancy obesity was related to a specific cause of death: notably, prematurity, congenital abnormalities or SIDS. As it turned out, obesity was a problem in all of those categories.

“The really powerful finding would have been if all of the higher rates of infant mortality were explained by a single cause of death, but that wasn’t the case here,” Declercq said. “The implication, essentially, is it’s not one thing we have to worry about — obesity is a multifaceted problem in terms of outcomes.”

An ‘Alarming’ Rise In Obese Women

And clearly, the implications are broad. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently reported an “alarming” increase in the number of obese women of reproductive age in the U.S.: More than half are overweight or obese.

“A major hope in initiating this project was to get the focus on women’s health throughout her life course and not just when she’s pregnant,” Declercq said.

Lizzie, a 32-year-old chiropractor in Medford, Massachusetts, who asked that her last name not be used, says although she’s not obese, she’s definitely above her ideal weight.

Recently, Lizzie’s ob-gyn told her that if she wants to get pregnant (which she does), losing 10 to 20 pounds would be a good idea. “Even though I knew it intellectually, it was very hard to hear,” Lizzie said in an interview. “What bothered me the most was she said it but didn’t give me anything else, she didn’t talk about what I should do, no specifics about exercise or nutrition.”

With a family history of diabetes and a sister who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy, Lizzie says she’s trying to lose weight before conceiving, but it’s not easy.

“I desperately don’t want to repeat what my sister went through,” she said. “But it’s been a challenge … I’m a big sugar person — that’s my downfall, and a daily struggle.”

A Fraught Discussion

Actually getting women to lose weight before they’re pregnant is far easier said than done, says Dr. Naomi Stotland, a co-author of the recent Declercq study, and an ob-gyn at University of California San Francisco.

About half of pregnancies are unplanned, she says, which makes it hard to get the message across at the right time.

In addition, says Stotland, also on the faculty at San Francisco General Hospital, pressuring women to lose weight can be tricky for both doctors and patients. “Even if a physician is motivated to talk about it, the woman might not be in the right place to hear it.” she said.

For example: If a patient has an appointment to get birth control, it may not feel appropriate for the gynecologist to say, ‘Hey, maybe think about losing weight for that future, theoretical birth you’re not planning to have any time soon,’ she said. Also, doctors’ own issues about weight complicate the matter: Thin doctors often feel awkward and non-compassionate urging patients to slim down, and overweight doctors feel they have little credibility, Stotland said.

A small 2010 study of pregnant overweight and obese women, called “What My Doctor Didn’t Tell Me,” concluded that women often don’t feel their doctors are providing appropriate or helpful (or any) information on weight.

A Too-Accessible McDonald’s

And the complications only increase when poverty is also in the mix, says Dr. Nidhi Lal, a primary care doctor at Boston Medical Center. She says in her practice, which includes hundreds of reproductive age women, with about 30 to 40 percent who are overweight or obese, access to healthy food is a major obstacle because many live in so-called “food deserts” where nutritious food is scarce and fast food and convenience stores proliferate.

“McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts and 7-11’s are more accessible and affordable than shopping at Stop and Shop or Market Basket,” Lal said.

She said there are often deep misconceptions about food and pregnancy. For instance, some women assume that they need to start eating for two as soon as they start planning a pregnancy. “And these are women who are already overweight to begin with,” she said.

And there are cultural issues too.

“Women who are raised in the U.S. want to be thin, but they don’t always have the resources to get there and so they’re reluctant to talk about body weight,” Lal said. “They think I’m judging them or not being empathetic.” Women from certain other cultures, she says, prefer being heavy: “It’s a sign of attractiveness and prosperity.”

For doctors, then, it’s a tough path to navigate.

“It really requires a relationship of trust, a very non-judgmental kind of communication,” Lal said. “I try to make my patients well informed, tell them as many facts as I can: ‘This is why I want them to do this and how it can effect their pregnancy outcomes’ — a mother will do anything for the her baby. I try not to be negative, and say, ‘Oh no, you gained weight.’ It takes a lot pre-visit planning.”

Lal also tries to get her whole medical team involved, including consults with a nutritionist and prenatal nurse. Still, she adds: “It is hard to do everything in an empathetic manner in 15 to 20 minutes because despite what you say, they have their own sense of success and failure. Some are very discouraged because they are doing what they can but some things they can’t control.”

But the problem isn’t going away. A slew of recent studies suggest that obesity before and during pregnancy can cause enduring health woes.

A study published in January found that children born to mothers with a combination of obesity and diabetes before and during pregnancy may have up to four times the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder compared to children of women without the two conditions.

And late last year, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, calling obesity the “the most common health care problem in women of reproductive age,” issued new recommendations on obesity and exercise during pregnancy. It cited a list of problems associated with obesity mainly during pregnancy, including a higher risk of miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, birth defects, cardiac problems, sleep apnea, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and venous thromboembolism, or blood clotting in the veins.

‘I’m Just A Fried Clams Girl’

But telling women to change their personal behavior in an across-the-board manner sometimes gets public health officials in trouble.

For example, there was a massive backlash against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when, earlier this year, it issued a blanket warning that sexually active woman of childbearing age and not using birth control should stop drinking alcohol — completely.

So, hitting the right tone when it comes to talking to women about their weight is key.

“Conveying the message is tricky since I wouldn’t want it to be another case of blaming mothers,” Declercq, the researcher, said. “Since this involves pre-pregnancy obesity it emphasizes the importance of thinking of women’s health in general and not just when they’re pregnant, which has too often been the case.”

Interestingly, his study, published online last month in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, also found that established recommendations from the Institute of Medicine on weight gain during pregnancy were largely not being followed. Those recommendations suggest that obese women limit weight gain to between 11 and 20 pounds during pregnancy, regardless of the severity of the obesity. However, there was essentially the same infant mortality risk among obese women who followed those guidelines compared to those who didn’t, the study found.

That finding raises several questions: Do the guidelines need rethinking? Or is there something about the genetics of obese women that persists through pregnancy even if some amount of weight is lost?

This study didn’t address those issues, but one thing is clear for any future public health efforts: Women remain far more motivated if they think they’re doing something for their babies, Declercq said. The trick is to get them to think about their own health as deeply as their kids’ — and well in advance.

Take Amy, a mom from Arlington, Massachusetts, who gave birth to three children through IVF (and also asked for confidentiality). Between pregnancies, she says, it got harder to lose the weight. Now, while considering a fourth child, she says she should lose about 22 pounds.

Like many moms, Amy is vigilant about feeding her children healthy meals, but when it comes to her own diet: “I can’t overcome my cravings for meatball subs…I don’t really enjoy eating a salad.” She said that while some people find pleasure in “racing cars or smoking” her downfall is high calorie foods. “You know what you’re supposed to do, but actually doing it is the hardest part,” she said. “If I have the choice between romaine lettuce and fried clams? I’m just a fried clams girl.”

Shameful Operating Room Moments: Medical Journal On Calling Out ‘Dirtball’ Doctors

(Just Us 3/Flickr)

An essay published in the Annals of Internal Medicine begs the question: How many of us are being mocked and crudely disrespected while we’re at our most vulnerable? (Just Us 3/Flickr)

Imagine this scene:

A female patient under general anesthesia is being prepped for a vaginal hysterectomy. As the attending doctor washes and scrubs her labia and inner thighs, he turns to a medical student and says: “I bet she’s enjoying this.” Then he winks and laughs.

No, this account doesn’t come from a racy British tabloid. It was published this week in a reputable medical journal, Annals of Internal Medicine.

The account, written by an anonymous doctor and titled “Our Family Secrets,” also describes an incident involving an obstetric patient, Mrs. Lopez, who experienced hemorrhaging and other complications after childbirth. To stop the bleeding and ultimately save the patient, her doctor performs what is called an “internal bimanual uterine massage,” which means he must get his entire hand inside her vagina. From the piece:

“…something happened that I’ll never forget. Dr. Canby raises his right hand into the air. He starts to sing ‘La Cucaracha.’ He sings, ‘La Cucaracha, la cucaracha, dada, dada, dada-daaa.’ It looks like he is dancing with her. He stomps his feet, twists his body, and waves his right arm above his head. All the while, he holds her, his whole hand still inside her vagina. He starts laughing. He keeps dancing. And then he looks at me. I begin to sway to his beat. My feet shuffle. I hum and laugh along with him. Moments later, the anesthesiologist yells, ‘Knock it off, assholes!’ And we stop.”

Stomach Churning

Dr. Christine Laine, editor in chief of Annals of Internal Medicine, said this is the first time in her tenure that such a profanity has been printed in the journal. But, she said in an interview, it seemed appropriate in this case. When she first read the essay she says it made her “stomach churn,” and it made her angry.

“Angry for the patients … angry for the younger physicians who encountered this behavior, angry at myself and others who have witnessed colleagues being disrespectful to patients but were too timid to speak out,” Laine said.

In an accompanying editorial condemning the behavior described in the essay, Laine and her colleagues wrote: “The first incident reeked of misogyny and disrespect — the second reeked of all that plus heavy overtones of sexual assault and racism.”

So how did this series of unfortunate medical events unfold?

Here’s the backstory: The anonymous author of the essay (the journal decided to keep the doctor’s identity a secret) was leading a course on medical humanities for senior medical students. The topic was “the virtue of forgiveness.” At one point the doctor put a question to the class: “Do any of you have someone to forgive from your clinical experiences? Did anything ever happen that you need to forgive or perhaps still can’t forgive?” Continue reading

Where Does Life Begin, And Other Tough Abortion Questions For Doctors In Training

Our recent post on how residents training to be OB-GYNs think about providing abortions (or not providing them) went viral earlier this month and triggered a broader conversation among readers. The topic was also featured on Radio Boston and WBUR’s All Things Considered.

I asked Janet Singer, a nurse midwife on the faculty of Brown University’s obstetrics-gynecology residency program, and the person who organized the initial discussion among the residents, to follow up. She, in turn, ​asked Jennifer Villavicencio, a third-year resident​, to lead a discussion digging even more deeply into the topic.

Two of the residents ​in the discussion ​perform abortions, two have chosen not to do so. ​But they are colleagues and friends who have found a way to talk about this divisive issue in a respectful and productive way. ​Here, edited, is ​a transcript of ​their discussion, which gets to the heart of a particularly fraught question: When does life truly begin? ​Three of the residents have asked that their names not be included, for fear of hostility or violence aimed at abortion providers.

Jennifer Villavicencio (Resident 3): Let’s talk about a woman who comes in, has broken her water and is about 20 to 21 weeks pregnant and after counseling from both her obstetricians and the neonatologist [a special pediatrician who takes care of very sick newborns] has opted for an abortion. Let’s talk about how we each approach these patients.

Resident 2: As a non-abortion provider I will start just by saying that a patient of this nature in some ways is on one extreme of the spectrum. As an obstetrician, I view the loss of her pregnancy as an inevitability. I think we would all agree with that. So, taking part in the termination [another word for abortion] of her pregnancy is different to me than doing that for someone whose pregnancy, but for my involvement, would continue in a healthy and normal fashion.

Opponents and supporters of an abortion bill hold signs outside the Texas Capitol on July 9 in Austin. (Eric Gay/AP)

Opponents and supporters of an abortion bill hold signs outside the Texas Capitol on July 9 in Austin. (Eric Gay/AP)

JV: Would your opinion change if she were 22 or 23 weeks and theoretically could make it to viability [the concept that a fetus could survive outside of the mother. Currently, in the U.S., the generally accepted definition of viability is 24 weeks gestation or approximately six months pregnant]?

Resident 2: Personally, it wouldn’t, because I feel there is a very slim chance of an intact survival [refers to an infant not having significant mental or disabilities] of an infant. If she were 22 or 23 weeks gestation and could potentially make it to the point of a survivable child, that likelihood is so rare. But for my involvement, she will still lose this pregnancy. My point is, if I help terminate this pregnancy, I am not playing an integral role in the loss of this pregnancy. I feel that supporting her in proceeding in the safest possible way, protecting her while accepting the loss of her pregnancy, is my job.

Future Health Of The Child

JV: Does the future health of the child really play a role in it for you?

Continue reading

Viewpoint: Doctors Respond To Home Births That End Up In Hospital

By Shirie Leng, M.D. and Cindy Ku, M.D.

As physicians we are concerned about a recent post on CommonHealth — “What to Expect When You’re Birthing At Home: A Hospital C-Section (Possibly)” — that focuses on planned home births that end up in the hospital.

While we respect the right of women to labor and deliver in the environment of their choosing, requiring medical intervention in childbirth is neither shameful nor a moral failing. Life-threatening complications which, 100 years ago, would have meant a death sentence for mothers and babies, are now treatable and even preventable in the modern hospital maternity ward. Suggesting that women are unduly traumatized by transfer to and treatment in a medical facility does a disservice to the obstetricians, nurses, anesthesiologists, and neonatologists who work so hard to save these lives.

Here’s an example of the kind of case that could possibly result from a home birth that goes awry. While on a routine morning on the obstetrics unit, the usual routine was interrupted by a phone call from the emergency room. A laboring mother was in distress and needed an emergency caesarean, and she was about to arrive into the trauma OR. Since caesareans are not normally performed in the emergency room trauma room, everyone dropped their plans and hurriedly prepared the trauma OR. One minute later a petite young woman on a stretcher crashed through the door along with the obstetrician. “Get the baby out of me!” she screamed, writhing and crying in agony as the team transferred her to the operating table. Between her moans and her desperate outbursts, she could barely understand the questions as the anesthesiologist tried to ascertain three things: did she have heart or lung problems, did she have allergies, and did she have any potential problems with her airway?

 (meme_mutation/flickr)

(meme_mutation/flickr)

We had no other information to go by – no laboratory data, no history, not even her name. All we knew was the baby was in breech position (legs down, not head down) and was in distress. We had five seconds to decide how we would help to save the two lives in front of us. We told her as gently as we could (though it likely didn’t register with her at all) that she needed to breathe in oxygen for herself and her unborn child, that she would be unconscious for about an hour, and we would see her and her baby in the recovery room. Vaginal delivery is not the standard of care for breech presentations because of the significantly elevated risk of shoulder entrapment in the birth canal and stillbirth. Months after this case we all still wonder how we could have done better and what would’ve happened if she hadn’t arrived in time.

Thankfully, our team — the obstetricians, anesthesiologists, nurses and neonatologists — worked together successfully and both mother and child did well. We don’t know for sure if this case began as a home birth, but it does represent the sorts of difficulties that we medical staffs wrestle with when a home birth becomes complicated and ends up at the hospital.

Childbirth always brings with it an element of danger. While everything usually goes right, when it goes wrong it usually does so quickly and seriously. To expect the idealized experience in every case is to deny reality. In 1900, when women were having the arguably blissful natural birth experience home birthers seek, the maternal mortality rate was more than 800 deaths per 100,000 births. According to the CDC, in 1997 that number was 7 per 100,000. This statistic, an upwards of 99 percent decrease in mortality rate, was not achieved by midwives and doulas with the latest technology in birthing balls and labor tubs. It was achieved through advances in science and medicine. Continue reading