Obesity and Pregnancy

April 15, 2014

By Ashley Peak, clinical manager of Flagstaff Medical Center’s Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center

You my already know that obesity – defined as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 – carries risks, including an increased risk of heart problems, diabetes, stroke and arthritis. But did you also know obesity during pregnancy puts both mom and baby at increased risk of dangerous complications? 

Risks to mom
Some increased risks to an obese expectant mother include gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, preeclampsia and blood clots. All of these problems can threaten both mom and baby at the time of birth and before. Preeclampsia is one of the most dangerous risks of obesity in pregnancy, and can cause kidney and liver damage, among other serious complications.

Risks to baby
Increased risks to the baby of an obese mother include birth defects such as cleft palate, neural tube defects and heart problems. Birth defects are very rare, but the increased odds are worth understanding before becoming pregnant. In obese women, the chance of having a very large baby is also more likely, further increasing the chance of birth trauma.

Barriers to weight loss
Even a woman who is motivated to make healthy choices for herself and her baby can find it very difficult to lose weight. Trying but failing to lose weight can be frustrating, particularly for someone hoping to start a family. Every would-be mother wants to do the right thing for her child, but women with many pounds to lose often need help in order to achieve their weight loss goals.

Talk to a physician before becoming pregnant
Most women know they should visit a doctor when they are pregnant, but how many women know it is wise to talk with a doctor before becoming pregnant? In a preconception visit, your doctor can help you with many important health decisions including resources to reach a healthy weight, learning what nutrients you need, how and when to stop birth control and screening for any other health problems that could affect pregnancy.

Diet and exercise during pregnancy
Being overweight doesn’t imply someone is well nourished. In fact, the increased risk for some birth defects in mothers who are obese may actually be due to the fact that obese mothers are more likely to be missing key nutrients like folate in their diets. However, it’s not sensible to try to lose weight during pregnancy. Instead, a healthy diet, where every calorie counts toward getting all required nutrients (like folate, calcium and vitamins C, A and D) is the best choice.

Getting weight loss help
If you are obese and pregnant, it’s best to speak with your doctor about the right amount of weight to gain during pregnancy since the recommendations for weight gain change based on the mother’s body mass index (BMI). Also, the rush to lose weight and become pregnant can put women and their families under a great deal of pressure. Sometimes all efforts at diet and exercise fail. Although it is a serious decision to be discussed with the help of a trusted physician, bariatric surgery may be a good choice when all other options fall short.

Is pregnancy safe after bariatric surgery?
Women often ask if it’s safe to become pregnant after bariatric surgery. Studies show that pregnancy after bariatric surgery is safer than being pregnant while obese. However, it is best to wait about a year to 18 months after bariatric surgery, or until weight stabilizes, before becoming pregnant. When to become pregnant after surgery and weight loss is best discussed with your bariatric specialist.

Considering weight loss surgery?
If you are considering weight loss surgery, Flagstaff Medical Center’s Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center offers free information sessions the second Tuesday of every month from 6 - 7 p.m. These sessions include a presentation by one of our bariatric surgeons on the causes of and complications related to morbid obesity, as well as the types of surgeries available. To register to attend a free information session, call 928-214-3737. To learn more about the program, visit

The Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center at Flagstaff Medical Center is a nationally recognized accredited facility with the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.