Starving for Two: Eating Disorders Put Pregnant Women & Their Babies at Risk
By Hugh C. McBride
Throughout most of Kate Dean’s pregnancy, the 24-year-old Welsh woman spent an inordinate amount of time hunched over the toilet bowl. But unlike many other mothers-to-be, Dean wasn’t suffering from excessive morning sickness – she was forcing herself to “purge” in an effort to remain ultra-thin.
“I desperately wanted to eat well for my baby but didn’t know how to eat normally,” Dean told Catherine Brunton, a writer with the British newspaper The Times. “Anything I did eat I’d throw up straight away. … I gave up diet pills and used laxatives on a couple of occasions. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the effect of the [eating disorder] on my baby, it’s just that the [disorder] was winning.”
THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
As Brunton noted in the Aug. 18, 2008 article in which she reported on Dean’s story, struggling with an eating disorder while pregnant is not the anomaly that many believe it to be.
According to a survey sponsored by Tommy’s, the British baby charity, 2 percent of all pregnant women in the United Kingdom suffer from eating disorders. Writing in the Aug. 31, 2007 edition of The Daily Telegraph, reporter Rebecca Smith extrapolates this data to conclude that “with more than 600,000 babies born annually in the UK it could mean there are about 12,000 women who develop anorexia or bulimia while pregnant.”
Other sources claim that the number of pregnant women who suffer from eating disorders is even higher:
The true scope of disordered eating among pregnant women may be virtually impossible to determine, Morgan told The Times. “Women with eating disorders do not readily disclose their disorder to their obstetrician,” he said, “and have been reported to ascribe their behaviors to symptoms of pregnancy, such as hyperemesis gravidarum [excessive morning sickness].”
While experts continue to debate whether eating disorders among pregnant women are on the rise, or simply being diagnosed more effectively, the issue has also gotten considerable media attention in the United States. News outlets such as the New York Daily News and CBS’s“The Early Show” are among those that have devoted column space and airtime to a phenomenon that some have termed “pregorexia.”
EFFECTS ON MOTHER & CHILD
Though there may be a wide range of opinions regarding the prevalence of eating disorders among pregnant women, virtual unanimity exists when it comes to the dangers that the conditions pose to both mother and child.
On the website of the nonprofit Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, the following statistics are indicative of the impact disordered eating can have:
Pregnant women with eating disorders also put their children at greater risk of neurological and developmental disabilities. ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders) advises women with eating disorders that their conditions may result in premature or underweight babies who may be more likely to develop learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, anxiety disorders, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. “The more premature the baby, and the lower its weight, the more likely the disability,” ANRED reports.
Health conditions and abnormal results like the ones described above can result from a number of disordered eating behaviors, including self-starvation, bingeing and purging, the ingestion of laxatives, and excessive exercise.
Women who are struggling with eating disorders are advised to discuss their condition with their health care provider before attempting to conceive. Though many women have given birth to healthy babies while dealing with their own disordered eating, the physical and emotional risks to both mother and child are considerable.
In Kate Dean’s case, finding help was quite a challenge, as the nearest eating disorder clinic was more than 150 miles away from where she and her husband lived, and she told The Times that the support she received from her doctor was “completely inadequate.”
Hopefully, the wealth of resources that exists today will help ensure that experiences like Dean’s become less and less common. In addition to meeting with an obstetrician or gynecologist, women can also educate themselves at their local libraries or by visiting websites such as Something Fishy or Eating-Disorder.com.
As Dr. Holly Phillips advised during her Aug. 11 appearance on The Early Show, “Everything you do during pregnancy – including your diet and exercise – should be for your health, not for your weight.”
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