Unborn Babies Treated for Obesity in Womb

In a controversial world first, babies are being medicated in the womb in an effort to prevent them from being born obese. Dangerously overweight moms-to-be in four British cities have started taking a diabetes drug during pregnancy to trim their risk for giving birth to an overweight child, the Daily Mail Online reports.

While the researchers argue that they’re trying to protect the future health of children, the trial—the first of its kind in the world—has sparked unease about resorting to drugs during pregnancy for a problem that could be safely treated with diet and exercise. What’s more, if this strategy succeeds, detractors worry the treatment could become widespread within five years and cause tens of thousands of overweight, but otherwise healthy, moms-to-be around the world to want the treatment.

Learn about the effects of smoking on pregnancy and childbirth.

Soaring Rates of “Sumo Babies”

The trial is part of a hotly debated National Health Service trial, launched in an attempt to curb the obesity epidemic, after a 50 percent rise in births of so-called “sumo babies” (newborns weighing more than 11 pounds) during the past four years in the UK. These large babies have double the risk of becoming overweight as adults.

There’s also a growing trend of big babies in the U.S., with a spate of such births recently making headlines. A California newborn tipped the scales at nearly 14 pounds last month and a Texas woman delivered a 16-pound boy in July, CBS News reports. While those babies entered the world by C-section, an astonishingly stoic Iowa woman gave birth to 13-pound, 13-ounce boy in January without surgery or painkillers.

Preventing Large Babies by Reducing Blood Sugar

In the trial, researchers from the University of Edinburgh will give 400 obese expectant moms the oral diabetes drug metformin (Glucophage). The idea is to cut blood sugar levels because obese women are often insulin-resistant, a prediabetic condition in which the body becomes insensitive to the insulin produced by the pancreas. If untreated, this may lead to a rise in blood sugar and ultimately to type 2 diabetes.

Overweight and obese women are at higher risk for developing gestational diabetes, which can result in jumbo babies because the main nutrient that fuels a baby’s growth in the womb is sugar. If untreated, this temporary form of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy can have lasting effects on the baby, as kids born to women with the blood disorder have double the risk for obesity.

Read about the history of type 2 diabetes.

The #1 Pregnancy Danger

As I reported last year, a recent study shows that obesity—not the mom’s age—is the leading threat to a healthy pregnancy. A British study recently reported that maternal obesity has doubled during the past 20 years, with one in six pregnant women in the UK facing extra health hazards, including heart disease and increased risk for birth defects and stillbirths.

In the U.S., where one in three women is obese, there are now medical centers specializing in caring for morbidly obese pregnant women, with such equipment as larger, sturdier operating tables. These patients are more likely to require a C-section, often due to large babies, who can face a wide range of health risks, including nerve damage, broken bones, or even brain damage during a difficult vaginal birth.

Is Diabetes Medication Risky for Obese Moms-to-Be?

"Metformin is a drug already taken by women during pregnancy if they have diabetes, so we know that it is safe," said Dr. Fiona Denison, of the Queen's Medical Research Institute in Edinburgh. One of the most commonly prescribed diabetes drugs in the world, it’s approved in both the U.S. and U.K., and falls into the FDA’s pregnancy category B (not expected to be harmful to an unborn baby).

However, in rare cases, the drug can cause a serious or even fatal condition called lactic acidosis, in which lactic acid builds up in the bloodstream. It is more likely to strike people who have liver or kidney disease, congestive heart failure, dehydration or a severe infection. Less serious metformin side effects include headache, muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, and belly pain.

What’s the Safest Way to Prevent Obesity in Babies?

While it may be tempting for women who are already overweight to turn couch potato as their baby bump starts expanding, a recent study shows that regular, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise during pregnancy can modestly reduce the birth weight of a baby—without medication.

In the study, researches randomly placed 84 first-time expectant mothers in one of two groups. One group worked out five times a week in 40-minute sessions on a stationary bike; the other group did not exercise at all. The babies of the women who exercised were on average 5 ounces lighter. "Given that large birth size is associated with an increased risk of obesity, a modest reduction in birth weight may have long-term health benefits for offspring by lowering this risk in later life," said the study's authors.

Pumping up fiber intake also helps reduce risk for gestational diabetes, according to a study published in Diabetes Care. This pregnancy complication was rarest among women who ate an average of 26 grams of fiber daily. That’s because high-fiber foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are absorbed slowly, helping keep blood sugar on an even keel during pregnancy.

Learn about the many benefits of a high-fiber diet.

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