Eating for two

Healthy diets may reduce childhood behavioural problems

It’s a good idea to consider improving your diet even before you get pregnant, because women with poor preconception diets are twice as likely to have children with behavioural problems.

In an Australian first, University of Queensland Professor Gita Mishra, Dr Michael Waller and I found a significant link between pre-pregnancy diet and children’s behaviour.

We used a multivariable regression model to analyse data from 1,500 mothers in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. We found women with poor maternal diets were more likely to have children with behavioural problems such as restlessness, distractibility, a tendency to fidget, and nervousness.

From the data, we also considered other risk factors for these behavioural problems such as a family history of anxiety or maternal smoking. By controlling these variables, we were able to establish a strong connection between childhood behavioural problems and mothers who ate high volumes of fat, sugar and refined grains. This type of diet has also been linked to altered foetal neuroendocrine development in previous studies.

We found women with healthy diets halved their chance of having children with behavioural problems.

They ate diets rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, proteins, seafood and unsaturated fats. These foods are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, which play a significant role in the development of the foetus and placenta.

Even before conception, women depend on certain stored nutrients such as calcium and iron to help their baby grow, so starting a healthier diet after your baby has been conceived may be too late.

This research is an important step towards understanding how the quality of food a mother eats affects the over-all wellbeing of her children.   

For more information about healthy maternal diets visit the Australian Government’s Raising Children website.

Dereje Gete

Dereje Gete

Dereje Gete works at the Centre for Longitudinal and Life Course Research, School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland. His research specialty includes nutrition, infectious diseases, and women and child health. The study is published in the European Journal of Nutrition, DOI: 10.1007/s00394-020-02264-7.