March of Dimes Honors Researcher Who Showed Pre-Pregnancy Weight Affects Breastfeeding

Kathleen Maher Rasmussen Receives Agnes Higgins Award

San Francisco, California | Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Media Contacts

save print

The world-renowned researcher whose work influenced new guidelines for appropriate weight gain during pregnancy and helped explain how over and under nutrition affects breastfeeding has received the March of Dimes Agnes Higgins Award for outstanding achievements in the field of maternal-fetal nutrition.

Kathleen Maher Rasmussen, ScD, RD, professor of nutritional sciences, and international professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY received the award from Janis Biermann, MS, senior vice president for Education & Health Promotion at the March of Dimes, during the 140th annual meeting of the American Public Health Association held at the Moscone Convention Center West, San Francisco, CA.

Dr. Rasmussen’s work helped identify who benefits from nutritional supplementation during pregnancy or lactation. It examined the trade-offs, first in animals and then in women, between mother and fetus, an approach that influenced new guidelines for appropriate weight gain during pregnancy.

“Dr. Rasmussen’s research on maternal nutrition shows how important it is for women to maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy. Eating too much, or too little, has far-reaching health-consequences for mothers and their babies,” said Biermann. “We realize that weight is a sensitive subject for many women and that some health care professionals are uncomfortable discussing it, but weight is a risk factor that can be modified. If a woman starts pregnancy at a healthy weight, it can lower the risk of several health problems.”

Dr. Rasmussen’s early work on rats focused on under-nutrition and showed that the animals had fewer implanted embryos and fewer pups delivered. It also showed that the rats had reduced volume of milk production and that the milk was of lower quality, with less vitamin A than the milk of properly fed rats. Her findings from a later supplementation trial among Indonesia women led the World Health Organization to change their policies on vitamin A supplementation.

Dr. Rasmussen and her students also broke new ground in understanding the threat being overweight at conception has on successful breastfeeding. Her work on over-nutrition found that there is poor metabolic transition from pregnancy to lactation in rats as well as delayed onset of milk secretion and shorter breastfeeding in women.

Dr. Rasmussen’s work was built on the foundation laid by Agnes Higgins of Canada’s Montreal Diet Dispensary, where Mrs. Higgins helped pregnant women give birth to healthy babies by focusing on the mother’s nutritional needs. Services provided at the Dispensary were the precursor of government nutrition programs for pregnant women in the United States, such as WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The March of Dimes established an award in her name in 1980.

Dr. Rasmussen served as chairwoman of the Institute of Medicine committee that wrote the 2009 report, Weight Gain in Pregnancy: Reexamining the Guidelines, which set new guidelines for appropriate weight gain during pregnancy.

Also, Dr. Rasmussen has served for 24 years as program director of the only National Institutes of Health-funded training grant devoted specifically to maternal and child nutrition. She received a degree in molecular biology from Brown University and both her masters and doctorate degrees in nutrition from Harvard University. She is a founding member was president of the International Society for Research in Human Milk. She also served as President for the American Society for Nutritional Sciences (now the American Society for Nutrition). She received the Excellence in Nutrition Education Award from the American Society of Nutrition in 2006 as well as its award for mentoring in 2009.

About March of Dimes

March of Dimes leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies. We support research, lead programs and provide education and advocacy so that every baby can have the best possible start. Building on a successful 80-year legacy of impact and innovation, we empower every mom and every family.

Visit or for more information. Visit for comfort and support. Find us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram and Twitter.