This report looks at the myriad of health and psychological effects that body image can have
on pregnant women and new mothers, and shows how preoccupation with body image problems
can be unconsciously transmitted down to their children.
Eating problems of all kinds are on the rise. The most visible and obvious is obesity which is straining
the resources of the NHS. The most hidden is the chaotic eating which doesn’t show but which
involves individuals who intermittently restrict and binge while obsessing about their bodies,
rarely feeling safe around food.
Many factors contribute to the current epidemic. Often overlooked is the role of inter-generational
transmissionof eating problems and the psychological meaning of eating and body difficulties.
This is especially powerfulbetween mothers and daughters but it extends to the whole family.
We see obesogenic familiesand families who are vulnerable to eating problems and we see families
in which food restraining, fad dieting and extreme exercise are the manifestation of disturbed
appetites and fear of food.
Psychologists, neuroscientists, infant researchers, and public health professionals agree that
conception to age 2 is a vitally important time in human development. It lays down patterns
for life. It is also a time when attention targeted to parents and babies reaps huge dividends for
Early attachment between mothers and babies creates the foundation for mental health, resilience
and flexibility in children. Mothers who are preoccupied with eating and body image problems can
inadvertently behave in ways that shape bonding and attachment patterns in damaging ways.
Midwives and Health visitors are crucial in the transmission of public health to mothers and
They are vested with ensuring that the mental and physical health of mother and baby is optimised.
Midwives and health visitors receive little training on the effect of eating problems on mothers’
relationship with her infant, the feeding relationship and its impact on the baby’s developing body.
They also work with significant resource constraints and can be hard-pressed to find time to take
on new issues and challenges. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to overlook their potential contribution
to supporting women’s body image and healthy eating behaviours at this time.
Early intervention is the optimal chance to reach two populations in one go. Pregnancy and post-partum
is a time when mothers are most receptive to ‘getting things right’. Routinely talking to all mothers about
these issues will help them to identify causes of distress and unease, and legitimise asking for help. It gives
women the opportunity to optimise their own wellbeing and therefore also the wellbeing of their babies. .