The article in the latest edition of Nature argues that tackling health problems including obesity, mental health, poor nutrition and substance abuse in young people before they become parents is essential for the best possible start to life for their future children.
Researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the University of Melbourne said that taking action once a woman knows she is pregnant is often starting too late.
Young women and men often carry lifestyle and health risks from adolescence into pregnancy, they added, even if this happens in their 20s or 30s.
Lead author Professor George Patton said: “The first 1000 days of a child’s life are crucially important, but that is too late to be taking action. Current policies to promote the best possible start to life in Australia along with most other countries are starting too late.
“Health and lifestyle in the months immediately before pregnancy matters for both young mothers and fathers-to-be.
“The health system now only kicks into action with a woman’s first antenatal visit, most often eight to 14 weeks into a pregnancy. We need the health service system to be engaged before pregnancy – and it should go beyond its current focus on contraception to tackle broader health risks and emotional well-being in both young women and men.
“Today’s adolescents will be the largest generation to become parents in human history. We need to invest in their physical, social and emotional development to guarantee not only their own future health but that of their children.”
The paper brought together data from around 200 countries and from more than 140 recent research papers.
It considered mechanisms other than genes for how health and growth was transmitted between generations, including changes in a father’s sperm or a mother’s ovum, maternal influences around the time of conception and in later pregnancy, and parenting in the first two years after birth.
In high and middle income countries, the paper highlighted three main areas for action in adolescence: mental health, obesity and substance abuse.
Professor Patton said: “Maternal depression during pregnancy may affect a baby’s development before birth and the mother-child bond after birth. Both depression in pregnancy and after birth are generally a continuation of pre-pregnancy mental health problems that date back to adolescence.”
There is a rapid increase in obesity across adolescence and young adulthood, according to the authors. Maternal obesity during pregnancy predicts later childhood obesity, poorer cognitive skills and greater childhood behavioural problems.
Smoking, alcohol and drug use rise steeply in adolescence, the researchers said. They found consistent and clear evidence that persisting maternal tobacco, alcohol, cannabis and other illicit drug use in pregnancy adversely affects offspring growth and development.
Stopping use when a woman recognises she is pregnant may be too late to address the early effects on a baby.