Eating Disorders in Pregnancy

Eating disorders, like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, are becoming more and more common in western cultures. These eating disorders are very dangerous and can cause serious physical and psychological harm. During pregnancy, though, the effects of an eating disorder can be even more serious, affecting the growth and development of your baby. If you are pregnant and have an eating disorder, it is important to speak with your doctor and receive the appropriate treatment. Eating disorder treatment is available and highly effective.

How Common are Eating Disorders During Pregnancy?
A surprising number of women struggle with an eating disorder while they are pregnant. Eating disorder statistics estimate that 15% of women are thought to have disordered eating habits while 80% of women report being dissatisfied with their bodies.

Eating disorders during pregnancy are not very well known, but close to 20% of all pregnant women have them. The most common eating disorders found during pregnancy are bulimia and binge eating, though some anorexics do become pregnant. Pregnant women with eating disorders require special treatment and care in order to have a healthy pregnancy.

Pregnancy is not generally suspected in anorexics, and is also infrequent in bulimics. Eating disorders have a negative effect on your body's hormones and will often limit your ability to get pregnant. Anorexics typically do not have a period and are thus unable to get pregnant. Statistics on eating disorders show that 20% of women seeking help in fertility centers suffer from anorexia. Up to 50% of bulimics have irregular periods and may not ovulate, also making pregnancy difficult. Even after recovery, you may have difficulty getting pregnant. It takes a while for your body to regulate its hormones properly and begin regular ovulation.

Effects of an Eating Disorder on Your Fetus
Having an eating disorder during pregnancy puts your baby at a high risk of developing a number of medical disorders. Your baby can also die from improper nutrition or stress caused by your eating disorder. Studies have shown that even if you have recovered from an eating disorder, you are still likely to have a higher risk pregnancy. In fact, women who have been fully recovered for eight years face the same risks as those women who have just recovered. If possible, any pregnancy should be planned with this in mind.

The most common problems seen in pregnant women with eating disorders is an increased risk of low birth weight babies and preterm labor. Both bulimics and anorexics often fail to take in adequate nutrition and some refuse to gain weight, causing their babies to be underweight, underdeveloped, and malnourished. Mothers with eating disorders are more likely to give birth to babies with respiratory illnesses and low Apgar scores. Babies of malnourished moms also have a 35% increase in the risk of coronary death and are 6 times more likely to develop diabetes later in life.

A lack of adequate calories and nutrition can also cause developmental problems for your baby. Babies of women with eating disorders are at increased risk for developing cerebral palsy, liver disorders, cleft palate, blindness, and other physical abnormalities. They are also at increased risk for mental disorders, including lowered IQ, learning disabilities, and mood disorders later on in life.

Eating disorders during pregnancy can also lead to the death of your baby. Mothers who do not eat right and gain insufficient amounts of weight can suffer from spontaneous abortions or stillbirth. Excessive exercise can also increase your chance for miscarriage and stillbirth.

Effects of the Eating Disorder in Mom
An eating disorder during pregnancy can add to already existing physical problems caused by the disorder. Your baby counts on you for all its nutritional needs and will take as much vitamins, minerals, and calories as it requires from you. If you aren't eating enough, you will find that you will become even weaker and may have difficulties breathing, walking, and doing daily tasks.

The baby will also take any calcium that it needs from you, so you may suffer from increased bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis. Your teeth and bones may also become weaker and more brittle. If you are already suffering from heart damage, liver damage, or kidney damage, they can become worse during pregnancy.

Pregnant mothers with eating disorders are also at increased risk for miscarriage and complications during birth. Placental abruption and breech birth are more common among women with eating disorder.

Pregnancy can also add to the psychological problems experienced with an eating disorder. Pregnancy is a very stressful and emotional time. Many women find that dealing with weight gain is very difficult and may begin to feel increasingly out of control. Some women become very depressed and may have thoughts of hurting themselves or their baby. If you feel this way, it is important that you seek help immediately.

Some women will purposely underfeed their baby due to increasing concerns about the baby's size and shape. Others may overfeed their baby, which can also cause a host of problems. A few women actually find that their symptoms improve during pregnancy and are able to maintain adequate nutrition for their baby. However, after birth these women often feel that they now have no "excuse" not to diet, and continue with their eating disorder.

After Birth
The postpartum period is especially hard for mothers with eating disorders. If you have had an eating disorder or are still suffering from one, you are more likely to experience postpartum depression. Many women experience a resurgence of their bingeing and purging, or return to starvation during this time. It is important to remember that, even though your baby is now born, he still needs you to be healthy in order to care for him. If you are breastfeeding, an improper diet can have detrimental effects on the development of your child.

Women who are unable to recover from their eating disorders may unwittingly instill unhealthy eating practices in their children as they develop. Recent studies show that women with eating disorders tend to restrict the amount of food in their houses. They may also refuse to cook or eat with their children. They are also more likely to be unhappy with the shape or weight of their children. Eating disorders tend to run in families, and this may be a reason why. Parents are proven models for their kids and it is important to display healthy eating habits in front of your children.

Getting Help
If you have an eating disorder or have had one in the past, consult your doctor before you get pregnant. Your body may not be ready to take on the demands of a child, and it is best that you recover from your disorder before you have any children. You should be at a healthy weight before you get pregnant. If you are pregnant, keep these things in mind to ensure you have a healthy pregnancy:

  • Maintain a healthy and varied diet and achieve adequate weight gain
  • Inform your doctor of your eating disorder history
  • Have a thorough physical exam at regular intervals
  • Avoid laxatives, diuretics, and other methods of purging
  • Ask your doctor before you exercise and do not exercise excessively
  • Ask your health care provider about psychiatric medications that are safe to use during pregnancy
  • Continue therapy and get involved in a support group for mothers with eating disorders
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