Impact of Maternal Nutrition on Fetal Development

This report is based on medical evidence presented at sanctioned medical congress, from peer reviewed literature or opinion provided by a qualified healthcare practitioner. The consumption of the information contained within this report is intended for qualified Canadian healthcare practitioners only.


December 2010

Nutrition is perhaps the most influential non-genetic factor in fetal development.1 Maternal body composition, nutritional stores, diet, and ability to deliver nutrients through the placenta determines nutrient availability for the fetus.1 Prenatal nutrition influences fetal growth, normal development of physiological function2 and gestational weight gain (GWG). GWG is a complex progression that supports fetal growth and development. Maternal physiology and metabolism as well as placental metabolism also influence GWG. Maternal homeostasis changes can alter placental structure and function, influencing fetal growth.3

During the 1960s, high rates of infant mortality, disability and mental retardation in the US were realized to be a function of low birth weight. By 1970, the National Academy of Sciences reported that restricted weight gain for pregnant women was associated with increased risk of low-birth-weight infants. In 1990, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) established weight-gain ranges for pregnant women, which were extensively adopted in the US to improve infant birth weights.4

In 2009, the IOM and Health Canada revised their guidelines to reflect the relevance of maternal body composition before conception. More women of childbearing age are severely obese, making maternal health concerns as well as infant birth size both relevant for maternal weight. Additionally, women become pregnant at an older age and more commonly enter pregnancy with chronic conditions (e.g. hypertension or diabetes), increasing the risk of pregnancy complications.3 (Table 1)

Table 1.

During pregnancy, maternal weight gain affects fetal growth.4 Small neonate size at birth is attributable to poor growth and shortened gestation, and the most unfavourable outcomes occur in the most immature infants. Low rate of pregnancy weight gain is associated with increased risk of preterm birth4, whereas low second- or third-trimester weight gain has been shown to be associated with spontaneous preterm delivery risk.5

Two factors related to maternal nutrition show a positive connection with infant birth weight: maternal prepregnancy body mass index (BMI, defined as weight/height2) and weight gain during pregnancy. Women with low prepregnancy BMI are at increased risk for preterm birth and intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR). However, women with low prepregnancy BMI are at increased risk of preterm delivery only if they fail to gain adequate weight.5

Appropriate GWG within target ranges can help improve maternal and fetal health.6 Inadequate GWG has been associated with low birth weight (<2500 g) and gaining more weight than recommended with high birth weight (>4000 g) and postpartum weight retention. Data from the Canadian Maternity Experiences Survey 20067 show that pregnant women who gain less weight than recommended are likely to give birth to infants weighing less than 2500 g vs. normal-weight (2500 to <4000 g), full-term infants (44% vs. 24%, respectively).8

Many Canadian women gain well above the recommended weight gain ranges as well.6 Based on the same 2006 survey7, 55% of overweight, 41% of normal weight and 26% of underweight women fall into this group. A majority of women (58%) who gain more weight than recommended deliver infants weighing 4000 g or more.8

Nutrition During Pregnancy and Breast-Feeding

A complete balanced diet to support healthy fetal growth and development is required for the nutritional demands of pregnancy.

Maternal nutrition determines birth weight outcomes as well.6 Low-protein diets are associated with adverse outcomes and should be avoided.

Breast-feeding women also have increased nutritional needs. Energy requirements are actually higher during breast-feeding vs. pregnancy.

To ensure proper nutrition, pregnant and breast-feeding women should eat a healthy diet, including multiple nutritious foods, and consume the recommended number of servings from the four major food groups of the Canadian Food Guide.

Energy Requirements During Pregnancy and Breast-Feeding

During pregnancy, energy demands increase during the second and third trimesters. Women with normal body weight at onset of pregnancy need approximately an additional 340 kilocalories/ day during the second trimester and 452 kilocalories/day during the third trimester. These extra kilocalories help support adequate GWG as well as fetal growth and development (Tabl

Table 2.


Breast-feeding women also have increased energy requirements, which are dependent on the amount of milk a woman produces and how quickly she loses weight gained during pregnancy. During the first year of breast-feeding, women need approximately 350 to 400 additional kilocalories/day.9

Micronutrient Intake Related to Pregnancy Outcomes

In developing countries, where micronutrient deficiencies are routine, increasing micronutrient intake (by supplementation or increased micronutrient-rich food consumption) is associated with significantly increased birth size and IUGR reduction in women with low prepregnancy BMI.

One study in Chile10 showed that in underweight women, infant birth weight was significantly higher in subjects receiving energy (milk powder) with micronutrient supplement than those receiving energy supplementation alone. The percentage of IUGR infants was significantly lower in subjects receiving energy plus micronutrient supplement. Later analysis suggested that the risk for IUGR in subjects receiving micronutrient plus energy supplement was significantly lower than for subjects receiving energy supplementation alone.5

Ramakrishnan et al.11 investigated the relationship between micronutrient status and pregnancy outcome. They drew the following conclusions: evidence (typically from developed countries) shows better pregnancy outcomes from zinc, calcium and magnesium supplementation; vitamin A supplementation may be connected to increased birth weight and decreased maternal mortality; even though prevention of neural tube defects with folate supplementation and increased hemoglobin with iron supplementation are well substantiated, evidence showing whether folic acid and iron supplementation decrease other unfavourable pregnancy outcomes is limited; vitamin C deficiency may play a role in preterm delivery etiology; and severe maternal iodine deficiencies cause mental retardation and cretinism, but evidence is lacking for cases of marginal iron deficiency.

Balanced nutritional supplementation may be advantageous. Supplementation can provide for increased nutritional needs for kilocalories, protein, vitamins and minerals. In cases where the health care professional suspects suboptimal nutritional intake, it is important to provide advice to help this patient. In addition to advice on healthy eating, the use of a nutritional supplement containing kilocalories, protein and other essential nutrients can help ensure that nutritional needs are met and reduce associated health risks.

Disease Susceptibility

Accumulated evidence documents that prenatal factors predispose individuals to disease later in life. Negative environmental factors— including suboptimal maternal nutrition—may play a major role. The relationship between low birth weight and disease is an imbalance between fetal demand and maternal supply. The imbalance results in metabolic and endocrine changes, which assist the fetus in the short term by slowing growth and increasing available fuel, but lead to long-term greater risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.1

During the mid-1980s, epidemiologist Dr. David Barker and colleagues observed that coronary heart disease rates showed a profound correlation with infant mortality rates earlier in the century.12 Dr. Barker’s observations postulated that low-birthweight infants might be at increased coronary artery disease risk later in life. Using the National Health Service Register in Britain, Dr. Barker’s studies uncovered strong inverse associations between birth (or infant) weights and coronary artery disease deaths. Coronary heart disease death rates declined nearly twofold between those at the lower and upper strata of the weight distribution. Substudies have shown that trends in coronary heart disease with birth weight parallel trends in biological risk factors of coronary heart disease, namely, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.13-15

The effect of under-nutrition has also been demonstrated in a study of men and women, aged 50 years, who were babies born after the Dutch winter famine of 1944.16 Follow-up data show that under-nutrition at any stage of gestation is linked with reduced glucose tolerance and insulin resistance in offspring.14 Transgenerational influences in birth weights were also observed. Women who had been severely undernourished during the first trimester gave birth to (on average) normal birth weight infants, but those infants gave birth to smaller offspring in the following generation.17

Key Effects on Early Brain Development

Nutrition is a primary non-genetic factor affecting brain development. The effects of under-nutrition (and malnutrition) on the developing brain are long-lasting, leading to permanent deficits in learning and behaviour.

A predominant cause of hindered fetal brain development is maternal malnutrition, including placental insufficiency. Protein seems to be the most critical element for development of neurological function, and prenatal protein deficiency can impact brain development at critical junctures.2

Both nutrition and environment affect the ability and performance of the central nervous system. Maturation of the central nervous system is not linear. A decisive period of development represents a once-only window of opportunity that can neither be repeated nor reversed. The entire developmental period of the brain has subcritical periods, each of which may be disrupted and thereby affect the maturation and organization of the brain.2

Nutritional deprivation seems associated with varying degrees of intellectual disturbance such as cognitive impairments and attention deficit disorders. Failure of the fetus to develop optimally because of nutritional deprivation does not lead to immediate brain dysfunction. Rather, consequences can remain hidden, or manifest only as predispositions until a time when the system is stressed by unusual circumstances.2

Nutrition is perhaps the most influential non-genetic factor in fetal development. A complete balanced diet to support both maternal and fetal health is necessary throughout pregnancy and breast-feeding. With so much at risk during fetal development, it is crucial to maximize the health of mother and fetus through adequate nutrition. At times, supplementation may be helpful to promote the health of both. Proper nutrition provides the optimal environment for development in all aspects.

Weaning Infants from Breast Milk

The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) describes infant weaning as a natural but complex process during development, involving nutritional, immunological, biochemical and psychological components. Natural weaning occurs when an infant accepts nutrition from sources other than breast milk.

Common reasons given by mothers (or cited by mothers) for mother-led (planned) weaning include: insufficient breast milk, infant growth concerns, painful feedings or breast infection, mother’s return to work, new pregnancy, wanting the other parent to administer feedings or infant teeth emerging.18

Another study documented results of self-reported data from 1323 mothers who rated the importance of 32 reasons for discontinuing breast-feeding.19 Regardless of infants’ age, the perception that infants were not satisfied by breast milk alone was cited consistently as one of
ers decided to discontinue breast-feeding (Table 3).

Table 3.


The CPS recommends screening and educating breast-feeding mothers on how to wean infants off breast milk. The CPS guidelines include the following recommendations20:

• Partial weaning can be a good choice by mothers who would like to continue with some breast-feeding after they return to work or school.

• Implement weaning gradually.

• Substitute a cup or bottle (pumped breast milk, formula, cow’s milk) for the least favourite feeding. Avoid whole cow milk until infants are at least 9 (preferably 12) months old. Give no more than 720 mL/day. Limit fruit juices to 60 to 120 mL/day.

• Introduce solid foods at 6 months of age. The infant is developmentally ready and greatly benefits from the oral stimulation at this time.

– Introduce iron-containing foods by 4 to 6 months old, as iron stores accumulated from birth are diminishing by this time. Delaying introduction of solid foods beyond 6 months of age can make the infant more susceptible to iron-deficiency anemia and other micronutrient deficiencies.

– Offer solid foods at developmentally appropriate times.

Dietary Nucleotide Supplementation

Nucleotides are essential RNA and DNA components in all cells and are said to be important for maturation of the gastrointestinal tract, development of neonatal immune function and growth, and reduced incidence of infant diarrhea. Dietary nucleotide supplementation in infants may be necessary to enhance nucleotide synthesis.21

Nucleotides are available in human milk at concentrations of 72 mg/L, whereas cow’s milk contains only about 10 mg/L. Infant formula supplemented with nucleotide levels similar to those of human milk may facilitate maturation and immunoregulatory shifts in some lymphocyte populations consistent with those seen in human milk-fed infants.22 While evidence supports formula supplementation at levels of at least 33 mg/L, formula supplemented with 72 mg/L shows greater effects.23

Additionally, better antibody responses to immunization (Haemophilus influenzae, diphtheria toxin and oral polio [OPV] vaccines) have been associated with nucleotide-supplemented infant formula.23 In 48-week-old infants, serum immunoglobulin A (IgA) concentrations increased in infants fed formula fortified with 72 mg/L nucleotides vs. iron-fortified formula. At subsequent measurements, serum IgA concentrations were higher in infants fed nucleotide-fortified formula.24

Study outcomes indicate that infants who received a nucleotide-supplemented formula at 72 mg/L had significantly higher OPV type 1 neutralizing antibody (PV-VN1) responses than infants who received the same formula without nucleotides. PV-VN1 responses in infants fed human milk were not different from infants who were fed the nucleotide-fortified formula.25 At 12 months of age, normal growth was observed in both groups, and growth was comparable to that of infants fed human milk.

Several studies have reported reduced incidence of diarrhea in infants given dietary nucleotides. In one study, infants fed nucleotide-fortified formula demonstrated a 25% lower risk of diarrhea vs. controls.24 Other studies report that nucleotidefortified formulas are associated with fewer episodes of diarrhea over controls.23,26 An infant recovering from diarrhea could benefit from dietary nucleotides to replace intestinal mucosal cells as well as to help maintain normal growth.21


1. Phillips DIW. External influences on the fetus and their long-term consequences. Lupus 2006;15(11):794-800.

2. Morgane PJ, Mokler DJ, Galler JR. Effects of prenatal protein malnutrition on the hippocampal formation. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2002;26:471-83.

3. Rasmussen KM, Yaktine AL, eds; Committee to Reexamine IOM Pregnancy Weight Guidelines; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council. Weight Gain During Pregnancy: Reexamining the Guidelines. Accessed: October 3, 2010.

4. Abrams B, Altman SL, Pickett KE. Pregnancy weight gain: still controversial. Am J Clin Nutr 2000; 71(suppl):1233S-1241S.

5. Neggers Y, Goldenberg RL. Some thoughts on body mass index, micronutrient intakes and pregnancy outcome. J Nutr 2003;133(Suppl 2):1737S-1740S.

6. Dieticians of Canada. Paediatric Nutrition Network Newsletter. 2010;9:2.

7. Public Health Agency of Canada. Canadian Maternity Experiences Survey. http://www.phac-aspc. Accessed: November 4, 2010.

8. Lowell H, Miller DC. Weight gain during pregnancy: adherence to Health Canada’s Guidelines. Health Rep 2010;21:31-6.

9. Health Canada. Prenatal Nutrition Guidelines for Health Professionals. Background on Canada’s Food Guide. 2009.

10. Mardones-Santander et al. Effect of milk-based food supplement on maternal nutritional status and fetal growth in underweight Chilean woman. Am J Clin Nutr 1988;47:413-9.

11. Ramakrishnan et al. Micronutrients and pregnancy outcome: a review of the literature. Nutr Res 1999;19:103-59.

12. Barker DJP. Mothers, babies, and health in later life. 2nd ed. Churchill Livingstone; 1998.

13. Newsome et al. Is birthweight related to glucose and insulin metabolism? A systematic review. Diabet Med 2003;20:339-48.

14. Curhan et al. Birth weight and adult hypertension, diabetes mellitus and obesity in US men. Circulation 1996;94:3246-50 (abstract).

15. Barker et al. Type 2 (non-insulin dependent) diabetes mellitus, hypertension and hyperlipidemia (syndrome X): relation to reduced fetal growth. Diabetologia 1993;36:62-7.

16. Ravelli et al. Glucose tolerance in adults after prenatal exposure to famine. Lancet 1998;351:173-7.

17. Lumey LH, Stein AD. Offspring birth weights after maternal intrauterine undernutrition: a comparison within sibships. Am J Epidemiol 1997;146:810-9.

18. Canadian Paediatric Society. Weaning from the breast. Accessed: November 5, 2010.

19. Li et al. Why mothers stop breastfeeding: mothers’ self-reported reasons for stopping during the first year. Pediatrics 2008 Oct;122(suppl 2):S69-S76.

20. Canadian Paediatric Society. Weaning from the breast. Paediatr Child Health 2004;9(4):249-63.

21. Carver JD. Dietary nucleotides: effects on the immune and gastrointestinal systems. Acta Paediatrica September 1999;88(suppl S430):83–88.

22. Buck et al. Effect of dietary ribonucleotides on infant immune status. Part 2: Immune cell development. Pediatr Res 2004;56:891-900.

23. Gutiérrez-Castrellón et al. Immune response to nucleotide-supplemented infant formulae: systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr 2007;98(suppl 1):S64-S67.

24. Yau et al. Effect of nucleotides on diarrhea and immune responses in healthy term infants in Taiwan. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr 2003;36:37-43.

25. Schaller et al. Effect of dietary ribonucleotides on infant immune status. Part 1: Humoral responses. Pediatr Res 2004;56:883-90.

26. Yu VY. Scientific rationale and benefits of nucleotide supplementation of infant formula. J Paediatr Child Health 2002;38:543-9.

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