Eating disorders and pregnancy

KEY POINTS

  • Eating disorders can make it hard for you to get pregnant. During pregnancy, they can cause problems for your baby, including premature birth.

  • If you have an eating disorder, talk to your provider about how to help improve your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy baby.

  • If you’re pregnant and have an eating disorder, talk to your provider about how to gain the right amount of weight during pregnancy. 

  • If you’ve had an eating disorder in the past, tell your provider. It’s not unusual for eating disorders to come back during pregnancy.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious health problems that include extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors about weight and food. Women with an eating disorder may not like how their body looks, and they may have a strong fear of gaining weight. These feelings can cause stress and risky eating behaviors — like binging and purging — that can harm a woman’s health and cause problems during pregnancy. 

There are different kinds of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa (also called anorexia). Women with anorexia may eat very little, and may diet and exercise to extremes because they have an intense fear of being overweight, even when they’re not. Anorexia can cause your periods to stop, your hair to fall out and your skin to be dry, pale and yellow. Without treatment, anorexia can lead to serious health problems, including weakness, osteoporosis (bone loss), heart and kidney failure and death. Heart and kidney failure are when these organs stop working. 
  • Bulimia nervosa (also called bulimia). Women with bulimia have cycles of binging (eating a lot of food) and purging (getting rid of the extra food). Women may purge by making themselves throw up or by using laxatives or other drugs. Laxatives are medicines that help you poop. Purging can cause serious health problems, including damage to the teeth, throat and stomach. It also can cause mood swings and heart problems, like heart failure or when the heart beats out of rhythm.
  • Binge eating disorder. Women with this condition binge eat but don’t purge afterward. Binge eating may lead to obesity-related health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. If you’re obese, you have too much body fat and your body mass index (also called BMI) is 30 or higher. BMI is a measure of body fat based on your height and weight. To find out your BMI, go to www.cdc.gov/bmi.
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (also called OSFED).Women with OSFED may have some, but not all, features of another eating disorder. For example, they may purge but not binge, or they may have features of anorexia but have a normal weight. Health problems caused by OSFED depend on what features of eating disorders a person has.

If you think you may have an eating disorder, tell your health care provider. She can give you treatment to help you have healthy eating behaviors and prevent serious health problems.

What pregnancy problems can eating disorders cause?

Most women who get treatment for an eating disorder have healthy pregnancies. But eating disorders may cause problems during pregnancy.

If you have anorexia or bulimia, you may be underweight (don’t weigh enough) before pregnancy or not gain enough weight during pregnancy. You may be more likely than other women to have:  

  • Premature birth. This is birth that happens too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born this early may have health problems at birth and later in life.
  • A baby with low birthweight. This means your baby weighs less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces at birth.
  • Stillbirth or death soon after birth. Stillbirth is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Women with anorexia are more likely than other women to have a stillbirth.
  • Miscarriage. This is when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Women with bulimia are more likely than other women to have a miscarriage. 

If you have a binge eating disorder, you may be more likely than other women to have pregnancy complications related to being obese. Pregnancy complications related to being obese include:

  • Gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a kind of diabetes that some women get during pregnancy.
  • High blood pressure. This is when the force of blood against the walls of your blood vessels is too high. 
  • Having a very large baby who may be at risk of getting injured during labor and birth
  • Needing to have a cesarean birth (also called c-section). This is surgery in which your baby is born through a cut that your doctor makes in your belly and uterus (womb).

If you have an eating disorder, what can you do to improve your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy?

To help improve your chances of getting pregnant, see your health care provider. Your provider can treat you for any medical problems you have and help you get to a healthy weight. She may suggest that you see a counselor who has experience treating people with eating disorders, and a nutritionist who can help you create a healthy eating plan (also called meal plan). Follow your plan for a few months before you try to get pregnant. Once you get to a healthy weight, you’re more likely to be able to get pregnant.

During pregnancy, keep using the meal plan so you gain the right amount of weight. It’s important for you to gain weight during pregnancy to make sure that your baby gets all the nutrients she needs. 

Even if you were treated for an eating disorder in the past — even months or years ago — tell your provider about it. You may start to worry about the weight you gain during pregnancy, and your eating disorder may come back. Your provider can help you stick with your meal plan and can check on you and your baby carefully throughout pregnancy to help prevent complications and make sure you’re both healthy. 

See alsoEating healthy during pregnancyVitamins and other nutrients during pregnancy

Last reviewed: April, 2016