Saturday, September 30, 2006

Your Unborn Baby

Most people assume that the safest period of one’s life, is the time spent as a fetus in their mother’s womb.

Unfortunately, this is not always true. If a mother smokes, drinks, consumes an unbalanced diet or is prone to “infections in the reproductive tract”, the chances of her baby being born with abnormalities are very high.

“We are never more clever than we are as a fetus,” says Dr. Peter Nathanielz, a fetal researcher, obstetrician, and professor of reproductive medicine at Cornell University. “We pass far more biological milestones before we are born than we’ll ever pass after we’re born.”

Studies show that it’s the fetus, not the mother, who sends the hormonal signals that determine when a baby will be born. And we’ve found out that its health in the womb depends in part on its mother’s health when she was in the womb.

The fetus is strongly affected by the mother’s eating habits. If the mother exercises more than usual, the fetus may become temporarily short of oxygen. If she takes a hot bath, the fetus feels the heat. If she smokes, so does the fetus. One study has shown that pregnant women exposed to more sunlight had more outgoing children.

“Because of genetics, we once thought that we would unfold in the womb like a blueprint, but now we know that it’s not that simple,” says Janet DiPietro, an associate professor of maternal and child health at the John’s Hopkins School of Public Health and one of a handful of fetal-behavior specialists. “The mother and the uterine environment she creates have a major impact on many aspects of fetal development, and a number of things laid down during that time remain with you throughout your life.”

Researchers say consuming up to three servings of aspartame (artificial sweetener) a day – in either diet soda or low calorie foods – appears to be safe for the fetus. However, a pregnant woman of average weight who eats ten or more servings a day may put her unborn baby at risk.

Recent studies show that exposure to one of the most common of winter’s ills – influenza – may put an unborn child at risk of cognitive and emotional problems. If flu strikes in the second trimester, it may increase the unborn baby’s risk of developing schizophrenia later in life. While the flu may be a trigger, it’s likely that a genetic susceptibility is also needed for schizophrenia to develop.

Some evidence exists that maternal flu may also lead to dyslexia, and suspicions persist that a first – trimester flu may cause fetal neural tube defects resulting in spina bifida.

“Infections are probably the most important thing for a pregnant woman to protect herself against,” says Lise Eliot, a developmental neurobiologist at the Chicago Medical School.
Some researchers recommend that pregnant women avoid close contact with cats. Toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection, can travel from a cat to a woman to her unborn child.

Most humans become infected through cat litter boxes. An infected woman might experience only mild symptoms, if any, so the illness usually goes undetected. If she is diagnosed with the infection, antiparasitic drugs are helpful, but they don’t completely eliminate the disease. The infection is relatively rare, and the odds of passing it from mother to child are only one in five during the first two trimesters, when the fetal harm is most serious. The bad news is that a fetus infected by toxoplasmosis can suffer severe brain damage, including mental retardation and epilepsy. Some researchers also suspect it may be a latent trigger for serious mental illness as the child grows older.

Researchers suspect most cerebral palsy cases are not caused by delivery problems, as has been widely assumed. There’s strong evidence that some cases of cerebral palsy may be linked to placental infections that occur during uterine life. Other cerebral palsy cases may be triggered by oxygen deprivation in early development, but very few appear to be caused by oxygen deprivation during delivery. It’s now estimated that only 10 percent of cerebral palsy cases are related to delivery problems.

Maternal urinary-tract infections have been linked to lower IQ’s in children. Another infection, cytomegalovirus (CMV), has been linked to congenital deafness. Sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia are suspected to be a trigger for pre-term birth.

Women can help prevent neurological and other birth defects by taking vitamin supplements before pregnancy. A daily dose of 400 micrograms of folic acid can reduce the risk of such problems as spina bifida by more than 70 percent as well as prevent brain defects and cleft lip and palate.

To be effective, folic acid should be taken before pregnancy to prevent developmental defects. Folic acid comes in multivitamins and prenatal vitamins and is found naturally in legumes, whole wheat bread, citrus fruits, fortified breakfast cereal, and leafy green vegetables. Despite the proven value of folic acid, a recent March of Dimes survey found that only 32 percent of American women of childbearing age – including pregnant women – took folic – acid supplements.

What is the impact of life in the womb on intelligence? Bernie Devlin, a biostatistician and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh thinks it’s equal to if not greater than the impact of a child’s upbringing. In other words, it’s possible a mother may have more influence over her child’s intelligence before birth than after.

As the brain develops in utero, we know it undergoes changes that affect its ultimate capacity. Nutritional and hormonal influences from the mother have a big impact. And twins studies show that the heavier twin at birth most often has the higher IQ.

The August 1999 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported that expected mothers with low thyroid function gave birth to children with markedly diminished IQ’s as well as motor and attention deficits. The study said one cause of hypothyroidism _ present in 2 to 3 percent of American women - is a lack of iodine in the American diet. Women whose hypothyroidism was detected and treated before pregnancy had children with normal test scores.

There are companies offering kits so expectant mothers can play music of different sounds to their developing babies – the prenatal “Mozart effect.” One kit promises this stimulation will lead to “longer new-born attention span, better sleep patterns, accelerated development, expanded cognitive powers, enhanced social awareness and extraordinary language abilities.” Will acceptance to Harvard come next?

“The number of bogus and dangerous devices available to expectant parents to make their babies smarter constantly shocks me,” says DiPietro. “All these claims are made without a shred of evidence to support them.”

Adds DeCasper, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro: “I think it is dangerous to stimulate the baby in the womb. If you play Mozart and it remembers Mozart, is it going to be a smarter baby? I haven’t got a clue. Could it hurt the baby? Yes, I think it could. If you started this stimulation too early and played it too loud, there is evidence from animal studies that you can destroy the ear’s ability to hear sounds in a particular range. That’s an established fact. Would I take a risk with my fetus? No!”

DeCasper and other researchers emphasize that no devices or tricks can enhance the brainpower of a developing baby. Their advice to the expectant mother: Take the best possible care of yourself.

“The womb is a quiet, protective place for a reason,” DiPietro concludes. “Nature didn’t design megaphones to be placed on the abdomen. The fetus gets all the stimulation it needs for its brain to develop.”

(Quoted from – The Mystery Of Fetal life: Secrets Of The Womb by John Pekkanen)



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