(CNN) Many moms-to-be know that their health even before they become pregnant — known as pre-conception health — can affect the health of their babies.
Now, research is continuing to show that the pre-conception health of fathers also can influence a pregnancy and the baby.
Three papers published Monday in the journal The Lancet detail how the health of both women and men, before they even conceive a child, can have profound impacts on the health of their offspring — such as birth weight and brain development.
“This is a really important series, and it is important because it helps further re-establish the importance of pre-conception care as a legitimate direction for improving birth outcomes and improving health in children, both at the time of birth but also over their life course,” said Milton Kotelchuck, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in the new papers.
“Really, almost all of the important epigenetics, all the important embryologic development, takes place in the first few weeks of the pregnancy. That’s when lots of the really key things are happening before people even know they’re pregnant,” he said. “Your brain development, your entire spine, all the nerves are developed in the first couple of weeks.”
When is ‘pre-conception’?
The first of the three papers turns a spotlight on when the pre-conception period begins and ends and how it’s a time when many parents might not even realize that their health can influence their baby’s.
“Certainly, the last three to six months before you attempt to conceive really need to be focused on improving or making sure you maintain quality health,” said Dr. Haywood Brown, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Duke University School of Medicine and president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who was not involved in the new papers.
The first paper calls for the pre-conception period to be redefined according to three perspectives: biological, individual and public health.
Based on the biological perspective, the pre-conception period would be defined as the days to weeks before an embryo develops, but from the individual perspective, the pre-conception period would begin as soon as a couple has a conscious intention to conceive, typically weeks to months before pregnancy occurs, according to the paper.
Based on the public perspective, the pre-conception period would encompass the months or years it takes to address pre-conception risk factors related to diet, lifestyle and chronic diseases such as obesity or diabetes, according to the paper.
For example, “men who are obese have a higher chance of having decreased sperm count,” Brown said.
In women, “obesity is a risk factor for congenital birth defects. It’s associated with congenital heart defects. … Obesity also increases risk for things like developing preeclampsia and developing diabetes, and so in that sense, they affect the health of the baby,” he said. “We also know that people who are extremely underweight also have a higher risk of babies being small, and so there’s an extreme on both ends.”
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