Can a mother’s diet during pregnancy cause ADHD?

Annick Huberts-Bosch
About the Author

Annick Bosch is a PhD candidate at Karakter Child and Youth Psychiatry University Centre (Nijmegen, the Netherlands) at the TRACE project and specializes in ADHD.


There is increasing evidence that the environment in the womb during pregnancy might be important in the development of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD. The fetus may be sensitive to environmental influences, such as what the mother eats during critical stages of her pregnancy. For example, studies showed that malnourishment of the mother could impact brain development in her child [1]. These influences could sustain a long time after birth and even into adulthood [2]. Thus, maternal nutrition could play a crucial role already before birth. However, it is unknown how differences in maternal diet might influence the development of child neurodevelopmental disorders during pregnancy.

A recent study in Norway examined the associations between maternal diet quality during pregnancy and child ADHD symptoms at 8 years and child ADHD diagnosis [3]. A total of 102.152 mother-child pairs were included. Assessments included maternal diet quality during pregnancy and the contribution of ultra-processed food to total maternal energy intake in pregnancy. Results showed that higher overall maternal diet quality and lower consumption of ultra-processed foods in pregnancy were associated with fewer child ADHD symptoms. So mothers who ate more healthy had children with a lower risk of ADHD diagnosis. Strikingly, however, eating ultra-processed foods did not seem to influence the risk of ADHD in the child. The question therefore remains whether overall maternal diet quality during pregnancy might be more important than the intake of ultra-processed foods.

These results suggest an important role of maternal diet in the neurodevelopment of the fetus during pregnancy. However, the association estimates were small. Also, causal effects could not be determined. This means that we don’t yet know if the diet of the mother really causes alterations in the neurodevelopment of her child, which can lead to ADHD. It could also be that other – still unknown – factors cause both the diet of the mother and the ADHD of the child or that it’s a coincidence. An important next step for studies is to ensure that associations between nutrition and ADHD are due to causal effects of nutrition. Eventually, this could be game-changing in the prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD. An important first step is taken by the Norwegian study, but more studies are needed to impact the prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Also see this blog about the same Norwegian study: Ultra-processed food and ADHD by Johanne Telnes Instanes.

References:

1. Sinn, N. (2008). Nutritional and dietary influences on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutrition reviews, 66(10), 558-568.

2. Padmanabhan, V., Cardoso, R. C., & Puttabyatappa, M. (2016). Developmental programming, a pathway to disease. Endocrinology, 157(4), 1328-1340.

3. Borge, T. C., Biele, G., Papadopoulou, E., Andersen, L. F., Jacka, F., Eggesbø, M., … & Brantsæter, A. L. (2021). The associations between maternal and child diet quality and child ADHD–findings from a large Norwegian pregnancy cohort study. BMC psychiatry, 21(1), 1-14.