Pregnancy is the highest risk period in a woman’s life for developing obesity, and the first year of life is a sensitive period for the development of regulatory patterns in children that affect lifelong weight and health status. A new $3.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health will enable researchers at Penn State and SUNY Buffalo to test the effectiveness of Healthy Family Foundations, a parenting program for families expecting the birth of their first child.
“The time when couples are expecting is a golden opportunity for them to decide how they will establish healthy habits as a family,” said Mark Feinberg, research professor of health and human development at Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. “Our goals are to enhance healthy weight outcomes and support families’ relationships and mental health.”
The research team is recruiting 250 expectant couples at the Uniformed Services University, Nellis Air Force Base, Elgin Air Force Base and Madigan Army Medical Center to participate in a randomized, controlled trial of Healthy Family Foundations.
“Participants will create a plan for how to support each other, how to model health for their child, and how to parent their child to promote their child’s health,” Feinberg explained.
The Healthy Family Foundations program consists of a series of prenatal and postnatal classes that promote healthy eating, sleeping and exercise patterns for all members of the family. It is an adaptation of the Family Foundations program developed at Penn State, which teaches expectant parents strategies for creating a warm, supportive environment to help them handle the stresses of raising a newborn.
“With this new program, we are building on the success of Family Foundations, which has demonstrated long-term benefits for both parents and children,” Feinberg explained.
“Studies of Family Foundations have shown outcomes ranging from heathier births and easier infant care to having more well-adjusted children in school. The parents have reported having closer relationships and experiencing less anxiety and postpartum depression.”
The primary outcomes to be measured in this study are body-mass index for participating mothers and children. Data will be collected at home visits, with a pre-test during pregnancy, a post-test at six months postpartum, and follow-up at 12 months postpartum, with additional data obtained from electronic health records.
A previous study of military families who participated in Family Foundations found that that the mothers who took the classes retained less weight — 2 pounds on average — a year after birth than mothers in the control group.
Obesity in military families is common, according to Paul Crawford, professor of family medicine at the Uniformed Services University.
“This has national security implications as military children are more likely to volunteer for military service, and obesity precludes many from enlisting,” Crawford said. “We hope to learn strategies that prevent unhealthy weight gain and obesity during pregnancy and the postpartum period for the entire family.”
“Almost all programs for losing weight focus on individuals,” Feinberg noted. “This new program will provide a structured way for new parents to support each other in managing their weight.”
“The personal connection between facilitator, parents and their peers in Healthy Family Foundations holds great promise in encouraging healthier eating, increased activity and eventually less obesity,” Crawford added.
In addition to studying whether the program helps to prevent obesity, Crawford said that their team will evaluate how it may help strengthen military family resilience to separation and hardship.
Feinberg and Crawford are principal investigators on the study. Collaborators include the Uniformed Services University; Damon Jones, associate research professor at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center; and Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.