The short answer is yes. But what can we do?
When planning to have a child, we usually think about our finances, proximity to a good school and buying/renting a child-friendly property. How often do we think about our health and habits before conception?
It is widely known that health behaviours (diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol) during and before pregnancy can affect a child's lifelong health. To date, most of the responsibility for these early stages has been borne by mothers - from prior to conception, through pregnancy and then breastfeeding. However, there is good evidence that the health behaviours of fathers can also have significant impacts on child metabolic health, in particular via epigenetic effects. Science tells us that it is well and truly time to involve fathers more directly in the process towards healthy conception.
Why should couples focus on health before conception?
In countries like Australia, health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes are on the rise and have been for decades. The risk for such conditions is affected by health behaviours through two main pathways:
Through parental physiology - affected by nutrition, physical activity, and psychosocial wellbeing. This is irrespective of weight, so you may not be physiologically healthy just because you may be in the healthy weight range.
Through parental epigenetics - both mothers and fathers can pass on a higher risk to the next generation through poor diet and physical activity habits at the time of conception. This increased risk of diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure then stays with the child through their whole life.
Psychosocial wellbeing has also been linked to metabolic health through factors including insulin resistance (diabetes), high blood pressure, obesity, and increased blood cholesterol levels.
The good news is that this risk is reversible - by making sure that both parents adopt healthy behaviours before conception, thus reversing their own risk and preventing the transmission of risk to their offspring.
However, a major challenge is not only to change lifestyle/behavioural habits but to then maintain them for the long term.
Through extensive literature review, we have found preliminary evidence that involving both the mother and father in a lifestyle program can establish and sustain healthy habits, which maximises offspring health. Our research is only in its early stages, and we are still designing and developing programs specifically tailored for both members of a couple. So, if you're planning your first child in the next two years or so, help us by being part of a short interview that will be both fun and informative. To participate, email Sundus.Nizamani@canberra.edu.au
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