Improving the health of children and preventing child abuse begins even before pregnancy, the Prime Minister's chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman has told Parliament's Health Committee.

Sir Peter told the committee today that poor nutrition of mothers while pregnant and breast-feeding meant children were more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease later in life.

He said up to 60 per cent of women in western countries had been shown to have significant nutritional deficiencies while pregnant, impacting on their children's health.

He said there wasn't reliable data on the level of gestational diabetes, but in Singapore 25 per cent of women who were pregnant had gestational diabetes.


"I would imagine in Maori and Pacific communities we would be looking at similar percentages - my guess is for the overall incidence for gestational diabetes in the New Zealand population would be 16 per cent of pregnancies."

"The rise of gestational diabetes and maternal obesity are a real concern."

He said the nutritional state of women before and during pregnancy also impacted on the brain development of their children.

"There is growing evidence that the health of offspring is influenced by the behaviours of women from before conception and through pregnancy and lactation."

He said there was growing research being carried out on the benefits of women and their partners receiving preconception nutrition and lifestyle counselling.

Sir Peter said the family dynamics were partly to blame for poor nutrition because knowledge about raising children wasn't being passed down from one generation to the next.

Sir Peter also told the select committee the "mood" of the mother during pregnancy also impacted on a baby's health; particularly their brain development.

"A woman who is depressed during pregnancy will give birth to a baby with parts of their brains developed to different sizes and therefore a shorter attention span, difficulty learning and poor emotional development."


Sir Peter spoke to the Health Committee on both improving the health of children, but was also asked to speak about child abuse.

He said child abuse had permanent effects on a child's brain development and children subjected to abuse were more likely to abuse their own children.

" The work arising from the Green paper would allow greater targeting of services and support to try and break these cycles of intergenerational disadvantage," said Sir Peter.