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Eating Disorders and Pregnancy

Pregnancy is an especially vulnerable and delicate time for both mother-to-be and the developing baby.  Many women who struggle with an eating disorder may become pregnant either while actively engaging in an eating disorder or in the recovery phases.  Even for a woman who has been in recovery from an eating disorder for a long period of time, pregnancy can trigger old habits and behaviors with the new changes and symptoms typically experienced during this time.

For example, a woman who has previously suffered with anorexia may be triggered by the normal weight gain associated with a healthy pregnancy.  Similarly, a woman battling bulimia may feel more inclined to purge with any sensation of fullness as her baby grows.    Women who have an eating disorder during pregnancy can present with extreme risks to both mother and baby, particularly if left untreated.

Pregnant Woman in Green

While pregnancy is a joyous miracle, for someone struggling with an eating disorder, it can be a frightening and overwhelming experience.  If you or your loved one is pregnant and struggling with an eating disorder, you can ensure a healthy outcome for you and your baby by seeking the appropriate help and care you need.

Statistics

The following are pertinent statistics about eating disorders during pregnancy that can bring greater insight to the delicacy of this issue:

  • Eating disorders affect approximately seven million American women each year and tend to peak during childbearing years [1].
  • Pregnant women with active eating disorders are at a much higher risk for delivering preterm babies and low birth weight babies [2].
  • Pregnant women with an active eating disorder appear to be at greater risk for having a Cesarean section and postpartum depression [2].
  • Pregnant women with current eating disorders were at increased risk of hyperemesis and delivered infants with significantly lower birth weight and smaller head circumference [2].

Causes of Eating Disorders During Pregnancy

Typically, women who have eating disorders during pregnancy, such as anorexia or bulimia, struggled with this condition prior to conceiving.  For some women, the changes and symptoms associated with pregnancy may exacerbate the eating disorder, often complicating the pregnancy and jeopardizing the health of mother and baby.  For other women, pregnancy may encourage an improvement or remission in their eating disorder, as the mother seeks to improve the outcome for herself and baby.  Regardless, because of the crucial needs for both mother and the developing baby, professional treatment should be sought to ensure an eating disorder is not interfering with normal growth and progression of pregnancy.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders during Pregnancy

Women who are actively struggling with an eating disorder during pregnancy will display certain signs and symptoms.  If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder during pregnancy, these symptoms may help you become aware of what you are dealing with or lead you to reach out for professional help.  Common signs and symptoms of an eating disorder during pregnancy include but are not limited to:

  • Little to no weight gain or weight loss throughout the pregnancy
  • Restriction of major food groups
  • Feeling fearful of becoming overweight
  • Engaging in extreme forms of exercise to burn calories
  • Inducing vomiting to get rid of food eaten
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Dizziness, headaches, blacking-out
  • Skipping or avoiding meals
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Social avoidance of family or friends
  • Increased depression or anxiety

If you or your loved one has been experiencing any of these above symptoms as a result of an eating disorder, it is recommended that you seek medical and professional help immediately.

Effects of Eating Disorders during Pregnancy

Girl Facing Sea on Rocks

The effects of an eating disorder during pregnancy can be debilitating if not treated or addressed professionally.  Understanding how an eating disorder may affect the various facets of your life as well as your unborn baby may encourage you to get the help you need and deserve.  The following are some of the effects of an eating disorder during pregnancy:

Physical Effects – These are some physical effects that may be experienced:

  • Premature labor
  • Low birth weight in baby
  • Cardiac irregularities
  • Stillbirth or fetal death
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Miscarriage
  • Preeclampsia
  • Complications during labor
  • Respiratory Difficulties
  • Abnormal fetal growth
  • Increased risk of cesarean birth
  • Difficulties breastfeeding

Psychological Effects – Eating disorders will have a tremendous impact on your mental health, particularly if it is left untreated.  Some of the psychological effects that may be experienced include:

  • Postpartum depression
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image
  • Suicidal ideations

Finally, eating disorders will affect the manner in which you or your loved one is able to relate socially.  Effects of eating disorders during pregnancy on one’s social life include:

  • Withdrawal or isolation from loved ones, social functions or events
  • Lack of enjoyment in hobbies or activities once enjoyed
  • Marital or familial conflicts

Eating Disorder Treatment During Pregnancy

If you or a loved one is suffering with an eating disorder and is currently pregnant, it is important you seek the help and treatment you need to ensure a healthy outcome for you and your baby.  Effective eating disorder treatment during pregnancy will include regular visits with your Obstetric Doctor to closely track the growth and development of your baby, a counselor or therapist who can help guide you through any fears or concerns you may be facing, and a nutritionist, who help ensure you are in-taking adequate nutrition for you and your baby.  Finding a support group and attending pregnancy or parenting classes can also be helpful in your journey as you prepare to become a mother.  Several forms of help and eating disorder treatment are available to you to ensure that you and your baby have the best possible outcome from your pregnancy.

Articles on Pregnancy and Eating Disorders

References:

[1]:  “Pregnancy and Eating Disorders” http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/eatingdisorders.html

[2]:  “Pregnancy outcomes in women with Eating Disorders” http://www.womensmentalhealth.org/pregnancy-outcomes-in-women-with-eating-disorders/

 

Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 25, 2013

Page last updated: May 25, 2013
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Eating Disorders Resources

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