Greener neighborhood, bigger babies.

May 16, 2013

Dadvand, P, J Sunyer, X Basagaña, F Ballester, A Lertxundi, A Fernández-Somoano, M Estarlich, R García-Esteban, MA Mendez and NJ Nieuwenhuijsen. 2012 Surrounding greenness and pregnancy outcomes in four Spanish birth cohorts. Environmental Health Perspectives http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1205244.

Synopsis by Glenys Webster

Pregnant women living in areas with more plants and trees gave birth to slightly heavier babies with slightly larger heads, reports a new study from Spain. The results are among the first to show the benefits of green space for pregnancy outcomes and bolsters previous evidence linking green spaces to improved human health. The benefits may be higher for women of lower socioeconomic status.

Living in areas with more plants and vegetation during pregnancy may increase fetal growth but not the length of pregnancy, a new study from Spain reports.

On average, babies born to mothers living in "greener" areas – places covered with more plant life – had higher birth weights and slightly larger head circumference compared to babies whose mothers lived in areas with lower plant cover. Effects were stronger in women with lower education, suggesting increased benefits of green space in areas with lower socioeconomic status.

This is one of the first times that surrounding greenness has been linked to improved pregnancy outcomes. The results are important because low birth weight is linked to health problems in early life, as well as to longterm health effects such as cardiovascular disease.

The results give urban planners another reason to consider increasing green space in an effort to improve public health.

Researchers examined 2,393 pregnant women from four different birth groups from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain between 2003 and 2008. An index of “greenness” up to 500 meters around each woman’s home was generated using satellite images.

On average, babies born to moms living in areas with more plant cover were 1.5 ounces (44 grams) heavier and had head circumferences 0.05 to 0.07 inches (1.2 to 1.7 millimeters) larger than babies whose mothers lived in areas with less vegetation. The results were after taking into account maternal age, ethnicity, education level and other factors.

Head circumference is an indicator of brain size, which in turn is thought to affect IQ. The effects were strongest in babies born to moms with lower education, suggesting that increasing green space may have the most benefit in socioeconomically deprived areas. No effect was seen on length of pregnancy.

Green spaces are thought to improve health by increasing the physical activity of nearby residents, reducing stress and depression, increasing social contact, reducing noise and air pollution, and helping to regulate temperatures in urban areas. All of these factors may also improve pregnancy outcomes.

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