Pregnancy could slow down the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), research has suggested.
The disease, which affects around 100,000 people in the UK, is around twice as common in women as men and mostly affects females of childbearing age.
Previous studies on the long-term effects of childbirth on MS have produced mixed results, making it difficult to draw conclusions.
In the short term, women have been found to experience fewer relapses while pregnant, especially in the final 12 weeks of pregnancy. However, they have also been found to suffer more relapses in the first three months of their child’s life.
In the latest study, 330 women were split into four groups according to whether they had children only after developing MS, had them only before developing MS, had children either before or after developing symptoms, or had no children at all.
All the groups were then assessed against the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS), which measures progression of MS.
After around 18 years, 55 per cent of women had reached EDSS 6, which means they required an aid such as a stick or crutch to walk about 100 metres, with or without resting.
Women having children after onset of MS were 39 per cent less likely to have progressed to EDSS 6 than those who never had children, the results showed.
Those who gave birth before or after their first symptoms were 34 per cent less likely to have developed to EDSS 6.
The researchers, from the Netherlands and Belgium, said: “Women who gave birth at any point in time had less disability progression than those who never had children.”
The research was published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.