Eating Disorders in Motherhood

What is an eating disorder?Eating disorders tend to develop during adolescence, and this is where most of the research and treatment options are focused, however focusing treatment and research on mothers with eating disorders, or unhealthy relationships with food, might just prevent younger generations from being so exposed to eating related disturbances, and therefore reduce the rate of

younger generations being predisposed to developing eating disorders.

In order to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, there are certain criteria that one must fit which can be seen in Table 1.

However, in our society, there are so many people that have a disturbed relationship with food, or follow some kind of diet, or cut whole food groups out of their diet, that I would be willing to bet that there are not many that have a wholly healthy relationship with eating.

Just looking at a rack of magazines in the supermarket, you can see half of the covers telling us how to lose 3 stone and the other half showing celebrity weight loss stories. It is my feeling that society in general does not have a healthy grip on what a normal ‘diet’ is.

How does motherhood/pregnancy negatively impact the Eating Disorder?

If you are someone that already suffers from an eating disorder, or someone who might be predisposed to an eating disorder, going through a period where your body changes and grows can be extremely upsetting, even frightening.

The experience of gaining weight through your pregnancy can be very triggering for those whose self-evaluation is very tied to their size and weight, and can also be a point of relapse for those who are in recovery.

A Chinese study on bulimia found that ‘the transition to motherhood is a period of stress that may either precipitate or exacerbate disordered eating.’ (Lai, Tang, and Tse, 2006).

If you are at all concerned about the impact of your pregnancy on your relationship with your body, it is advisable that you talk to your doctor or midwife, or to seek out therapeutic support.

How does motherhood/pregnancy positively impact the Eating Disorder?

However, a Norwegian study that followed up an initially childless sample of women found that those who became a mother during the study experienced a decrease in their Eating Disorder problems compared to those who remained childless. This study concluded that motherhood may have a positive effect on Eating Disorders (von Soest & Wickstroøm, 2008).

Some mothers feel more positive about their relationship with their body during their pregnancy, as they can see that their body is capable of accomplishing something so great as to bring a child into the world. Their body is no longer something to be hated for it’s looks, but something to be admired for it’s abilities.

How does the Eating Disorder impact the experience of motherhood?

Many people who suffer with eating disorders report living a double life. There is a lot of secrecy involved in the maintenance of an eating disorder, and this is no different with mothers. New mum’s have reported feeling guilty for living a double life with their children, but also report being very aware of hiding their eating disorder from their child.

One researcher found that some mothers with eating disorders were very open with their children whereas others made huge efforts to hide their struggles with food from their children. Some mothers went to great lengths not to make any comment on their child’s size, weight, or portions, whereas other mums couldn’t help but be very vigilant about what their children were or were not eating.

One study even found that mothers with eating disorders were deliberately underfeeding their children.

What is the impact on the child of having a mother with an Eating Disorder?

There is not yet any indisputable evidence that having a mother with an eating disorder will unequivocally lead the child to develop an eating disorder, however the risk of developing an eating disorder is higher. The reason for this higher risk is unknown – is there a genetic predisposition to developing an eating disorder, or does the child pick up disturbed eating habits from the mother’s behaviour?

One study found that the eating habits of children whose mothers had eating disorders were more disturbed than their peers whose mothers did not have eating disorders.

Children’s brains are designed to soak in information at a young age, this is how they learn almost a whole language within a few years (whereas it can take an adult decades to learn a second language).

Therefore, if a child sees or senses that their mother has a fear of food or of putting on weight, it is likely that they too will develop a belief that food is bad or being anything other than thin is terrifying. Children will be able to pick up on the fact that ‘mum is on a diet’, ‘mum doesn’t eat breakfast’, ‘mum says bread is bad’, and so on, and they will start to develop similar lines of thinking.

Many children in our society grow up without a solid knowledge of what ‘normal’ is when it comes to food. We are so constantly bombarded with information about various diets, foods that cause cancer, the dangers of putting on weight, the health benefits of living on bananas, and so on that a lot of us don’t know which way is up.

Giving children a safe zone regarding food is important. They may be bombarded with all of these messages when they are out, but once they are in the confines of their own home, they should feel safe; both physically and psychologically.

Tips for Parents around food and mealtimes:

  • Try not to mention your child’s size, whether it’s positive or negative – instead mention your child’s creativity, kindness, humour, bravery, and so on. Put stock in their character strengths rather than their physical characteristics.

  • Try not to focus too heavily on what your child is eating. This may sound counter-intuitive, but having a parent watch every mouthful or comment when you don’t finish, or even when you finish your meal quickly, can be damaging. This may cause your child to either eat to please you (and eventually eat to please other people) or to stop eating before they are full for fear of disappointing you. Either way, your child will be unhealthily aware of what they are eating and of the connotations associated with food.

  • Make mealtimes about something other than food. Use meal times to interact with your child – ask about their day, tell them about your day, talk about something that interests them like a television show or a toy etc. Don’t distract them from eating, but don’t put the focus on their food.

  • Don’t act offended if they don’t finish their meal. You may have spent a while making it – coming up with new recipes, going to the shop for ingredients and so on (which can be incredibly difficult if you suffer with an eating disorder), and so it can be hard when someone says they don’t like it or they are full. It is okay to gently ask your child why they haven’t finished – are they full or do they not like it (and if they don’t like it, which parts didn’t they like). However, this must be coming from a loving place of trying to figure out what your child likes to eat and what they don’t like, rather than coming from a place of hurt or rejection on your part.

  • If you are unsure of yourself around food, meal times, portion sizes, and so on, why not enlist some support. Perhaps your partner could be around during the kids’ tea time or a friend? Having someone around that you trust has a healthy relationship with food – and it’s even better if it is someone that perhaps already knows that you struggle with this – will take the pressure off you, will help you to regulate and learn how to navigate mealtimes with your kids, and can also make the whole experience more enjoyable for everyone involved.

  • Finally, if you have any concerns that you might be suffering with an eating disorder, I implore you to seek help, whether it is from your GP or from a counselling service. If you fear that your eating disorder or unhealthy eating habits are impacting on your children, then again I urge you to seek help in the same way.

As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at

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