Eating Disorders in the Perinatal Period: What You Need to Know

Eating disorders in the perinatal period put the health of both the mother and baby at risk. We tell you why in the following article.
Eating Disorders in the Perinatal Period: What You Need to Know

Last update: 03 June, 2022

Becoming a mother is an event that confronts women with enormous physical and mental transformations. The difficulties in managing these changes, added to the social pressure regarding body image, can lead to a disorder that puts at risk the integrity of the mother and the baby. Therefore, we want to tell you what you should know about eating disorders in the perinatal period.

It’s important to note that any woman is susceptible to this situation, as the characteristics of the gestational period and the puerperium can trigger an eating disorder. But not only that, they can also aggravate a pre-existing disorder (ED)or induce relapse in a woman who has previously recovered from an ED. Therefore, it’s essential to pay attention to the warning signs and seek appropriate support from the onset of symptoms.

Eating disorders in the perinatal period

When we talk about pregnancy and women’s mental health, we usually think of diseases such as postpartum depression. However, we rarely contemplate the possibility of an eating disorder occurring in this vital stage.

Unfortunately, the figures reveal that such disorders are more present than we think. For example, some studies have found that more than 5% of pregnant women and more than 12% of postpartum women suffer from some form of ED.

Other research has found that about 67% of women who have suffered from ED at some point in their lives may suffer a relapse during pregnancy. Up to 50% may even relapse after giving birth to their children.

However, despite such high percentages, the reality is that most of these women suffer from ED in solitude, in silence, and with shame and guilt. Because in addition to the discomfort of the disorder itself, there’s an important internal struggle: On the one hand, they know that their behavior can seriously harm their baby, but on the other hand, they can’t avoid their impulses. Therefore, new mothers face an extremely complicated situation without the necessary support.

An apple core that's reflected in a mirror as an uneaten apple.
Body image distortion is one of the main aspects of eating disorders. Therefore, gestational and postpartum changes make it more likely for certain difficulties to reappear.

The main signs and symptoms

During the perinatal period (pregnancy and postpartum) different eating disorders can be experienced, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder, pica habit, food restriction disorder, and others.

The signs and symptoms of all these conditions vary from case to case. However, it’s necessary to be alert to the appearance of some of the following manifestations:

  • Great concern about the possibility of gaining weight. This thought is recurrent and causes great discomfort in women. Even if their weight is within the healthy and expected range for each stage of pregnancy.
  • Strong dissatisfaction with one’s own body and physical image. For the woman, her self-worth is closely associated with her appearance and her ability to remain slim and attractive.
  • Negative and unusual attitudes towards food. Some risk behaviors are food restriction, binge eating, or purgative behaviors (induced vomiting, use of laxatives, or excessive physical exercise).
  • Inadequate weight gain for the stage of pregnancy.
  • A history of menstrual alterations or fertility problems without apparent cause.
  • Negative attitudes toward the baby and toward the role of being a mother.
  • Frequent feelings of anxiety, irritability, or depression.
  • Obsession with regaining the pre-pregnancy figure and even excessive breastfeeding in order to lose weight faster.

Risks of eating disorders during the perinatal period

Eating disorders during the perinatal period carry serious risks to the health and well-being of mother and baby. Among the main ones, we can find the following:

  • Gestational diabetes
  • Problems related to the growth and development of the fetus
  • Respiratory difficulties in the mother
  • Miscarriage
  • Premature delivery or unplanned cesarean section
  • Low birth weight
  • Complications during delivery
  • Postpartum depression and difficulties bonding with the baby

In view of the above, it becomes essential that women receive quality medical and psychological care during the perinatal period. Especially those with a history of eating disorders, although this doesn’t exclude those who don’t.

Health professionals must be prepared to identify the signs of risk and not minimize the symptoms of this problem. In many cases, while the woman is within a normal weight, all the warning signs are overlooked.

A woman crying into her hands, which are bound by measuring tape.
An obsession to lose weight quickly or changes in mood due to the extra pounds should alert us to the possibility that a pregnant woman is going through this condition.

Closely accompanying the new mother is good for both her and her baby

It’s important that pregnant women are aware of their emotions in order to be able to recognize an onset or a possible relapse of an ED. If this happens, it’s key to put aside guilt or shame and ask for help as soon as possible. Psychological intervention and support in these cases are crucial in order to achieve recovery and avoid complications.

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  • Makino, M., Yasushi, M., & Tsutsui, S. (2020). The risk of eating disorder relapse during pregnancy and after delivery and postpartum depression among women recovered from eating disorders. BMC pregnancy and childbirth20(1), 1-7.
  • Pettersson, C. B., Zandian, M., & Clinton, D. (2016). Eating disorder symptoms pre-and postpartum. Archives of women’s mental health19(4), 675-680.
  • The National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (2015). Pregnancy and Eating Disorders: A Professional’s Guide to Assessment and Referral. https://nedc.com.au/assets/NEDC-Resources/NEDC-Resource-Pregnancy.pdf