Background: Chest circumference (CC) is suggested to be a good indicator of early life nutrition, but little is known on the heritability of CC. Thus we analysed the effects of genetic and environmental factors on the development of CC in Japanese infants.
Methods: CC was measured longitudinally from birth until 1 year of age in a cohort of 211 monozygotic and 160 dizygotic complete Japanese twin pairs born in 1989–2002. The data were analysed using applications of structural linear equation modelling for twin data.
Results: No sex-specific differences in the variance components were found. Environmental factors unique to each twin explained the major part of the variation of CC at birth whereas environmental factors shared by co-twins were more important at 1–3 months of age. From 3 months of age, the effect of genetic factors become steadily stronger and they explained the majority of the variation at 1 year of age. Strong genetic continuity in the development of CC was found, but also new sets of genes were activated during the first year of life. The origin of the environmental part of the variation could be tracked before 3 months of age. A substantial part of common and specific environmental factors affecting CC affected also birthweight.
Conclusions: CC is sensitive to intrauterine environmental factors, but these effects diminish during the first year of life, at least if postnatal environment is good. CC can be a useful indicator when identifying newborns who have suffered suboptimal pre-natal conditions.