Maternal History of Child Abuse and Obesity Risk in Offspring: Mediation by Weight in Pregnancy

Stephanie A. Leonard*, Lucia Catherine Petito, David H. Rehkopf, Lorrene D. Ritchie, Barbara Abrams

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Background: Women's experience of childhood adversity may contribute to their children's risk of obesity. Possible causal pathways include higher maternal weight and gestational weight gain, which have been associated with both maternal childhood adversity and obesity in offspring. Methods: This study included 6718 mother-child pairs from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 in the United States (1979-2012). We applied multiple log-binomial regression models to estimate associations between three markers of childhood adversity (physical abuse, household alcoholism, and household mental illness) and offspring obesity in childhood. We estimated natural direct effects to evaluate mediation by prepregnancy BMI and gestational weight gain. Results: Among every 100 mothers who reported physical abuse in childhood, there were 3.7 (95% confidence interval: -0.1 to 7.5) excess cases of obesity in 2- to 5-year olds compared with mothers who did not report physical abuse. Differences in prepregnancy BMI, but not gestational weight gain, accounted for 25.7% of these excess cases. There was no evidence of a similar relationship for household alcoholism or mental illness or for obesity in older children. Conclusions: In this national, prospective cohort study, prepregnancy BMI partially explained an association between maternal physical abuse in childhood and obesity in preschool-age children. These findings underscore the importance of life-course exposures in the etiology of child obesity and the potential multi-generational consequences of child abuse. Research is needed to determine whether screening for childhood abuse and treatment of its sequelae could strengthen efforts to prevent obesity in mothers and their children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)259-266
Number of pages8
JournalChildhood Obesity
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2017


  • Adult survivors of child adverse events
  • Child
  • Child abuse
  • Pediatric obesity
  • Physical abuse
  • Preschool obesity/etiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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