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BACKGROUND: Starting from birth, this explorative study aimed to investigate between-country differences in body mass index (BMI) trajectories and whether early life factors explain these differences.
METHODS: The sample included 7,644 children from seven European countries (Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Sweden) participating in the multi-centre IDEFICS study. Information on early life factors and in total 53,409 repeated measurements of height and weight from 0 to <12 years of age were collected during the baseline (2007/2008) and follow-up examination (2009/2010) supplemented by records of routine child health visits. Country-specific BMI growth curves were estimated using fractional polynomial mixed effects models. Several covariates focussing on early life factors were added to the models to investigate their role in the between-countries differences.
RESULTS: Large between-country differences were observed with Italian children showing significantly higher mean BMI values at all ages ≥ 3 years compared to the other countries. For instance, at age 11 years mean BMI values in Italian boys and girls were 22.3 [21.9;22.8; 99% confidence interval] and 22.0 [21.5;22.4], respectively, compared to a range of 18.4 [18.1;18.8] to 20.3 [19.8;20.7] in boys and 18.2 [17.8;18.6] to 20.3 [19.8;20.7] in girls in the other countries. After adjustment for early life factors, differences between country-specific BMI curves became smaller. Maternal BMI was the factor being most strongly associated with BMI growth (p<0.01 in all countries) with associations increasing during childhood. Gestational weight gain (GWG) was weakly associated with BMI at birth in all countries. In some countries, positive associations between BMI growth and children not being breastfed, mothers' smoking during pregnancy and low educational level of parents were found.
CONCLUSION: Early life factors seem to explain only some of the inter-country variation in growth. Maternal BMI showed the strongest association with children's BMI growth.