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Coping with an eating disorder can create additional stress and complexity for pregnant women and new mothers. An estimated 20 million American women will struggle with an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia at some point in their life, but the problem will rarely just disappear once a woman becomes pregnant.
In some cases, low weight and other health issues will prevent a woman from becoming pregnant. But many women with eating disorders do become pregnant. If left untreated, eating disorders can put both the mother and unborn baby at risk.
The Strains Of Pregnancy
Pregnancy and motherhood put a great deal of physical strain on a woman’s physical and psychological well-being. Physically, her body draws from her own stores of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to support the growth and development of the baby. If her reserves are already low due to an eating disorder, she may become malnourished. This can lead to depression, exhaustion and other potentially severe health complications.
Psychologically, the physical changes of pregnancy can be triggering for a woman with a history of body dysmorphia or disordered eating. On average, a pregnant woman gains between 25 and 35 pounds during pregnancy. Though some women with eating disorders may be able to accept and even enjoy this healthy and normal weight gain, it can lead to extreme depression for others. Most women with eating disorders fall on a spectrum somewhere in between these extremes.
Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs
Different eating disorders can impact a woman’s physical and emotional health, as well as the health of her unborn baby, in different ways.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a low weight, fear of gaining weight and a strong desire to be thin. Pregnant women with anorexia may not gain enough weight, which can lead to risks of the baby being born at a low birth weight and related health problems.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by episodes of binging, followed by attempts to purge the body of calories through vomiting, use of laxatives, extreme exercise or other behaviors. Bulimia risks include dehydration, chemical imbalances or cardiac irregularities. These risks are typically higher during pregnancy.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by episodes of compulsive overeating. This often causes weight gain, which can lead to depression, exhaustion, high blood pressure, diabetes and many other serious health complications that may endanger a pregnant woman.
Research has also shown that women with an active eating disorder during pregnancy may be at a greater risk of developing postpartum depression. Health problems for the mother may impact her unborn baby as well, leading to poor development, premature birth, low birth weight, respiratory problems, feeding difficulties and other prenatal complications.
What Can Be Done?
There is some good news in all of this. Research has also shown that women who receive medical treatment and are able to manage their eating disorders during pregnancy are highly likely to have a healthy pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby.
If you or someone you know is coping with an eating disorder while pregnant, experts recommend some of the following steps to help ensure the health of the mother and baby:
- Be honest with your prenatal health provider about your eating disorder, past and present
- Make regular appointments with your health provider to closely track the growth and development of the baby
- Work regularly with a nutritionist to create a healthy plan for both eating and managing weight gain throughout your pregnancy and after the baby is born.
- Seek individual counseling during and after pregnancy to help you manage your eating, body image issues and the pressures of pregnancy and new motherhood
- Other steps that may help include prenatal exercise classes, 12-Step programs for people with eating disorders and classes on pregnancy, childbirth, child development and parenting skills.
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