Researchers in the field of “fetal origins” propose that the 40 week gestation period may be one of the most significant times of our lives. The 9 months before birth may shape our susceptibility to disease and the functioning of our major organs as well as influence our temperament and intelligence.(1)
Over the last fifty years, increasing numbers of children in the US and other developed countries have been diagnosed with asthma, diabetes, obesity, autism and many other health conditions that were once rare in children. The typical medical explanation for this trend has been that our genetic make up, lifestyle choices and environmental exposures after we are born are the principal contributors. However, recent research provides significant evidence that the intrauterine milieu and our 9 months of fetal life play a vital role in determining an individual’s lifelong health.
Recognizing the impact of this research and the importance of the fetal environment, many parents-to-be want to know what steps they can take during pregnancy to optimize both the physical and emotional well being of their baby.
Studies have demonstrated the “power of your plate” in pregnancy, emphasizing the importance of prenatal nutrition. For example, women who gain excessive weight during pregnancy tend to have heavier toddlers, and lower birth weight babies have an increased risk of diabetes in adulthood.(2) In addition, exposure to pesticides, antibiotics and hormones (used to grow animal and plant foods), and bisphenol-A (from canned foods) may disrupt the developing endocrine and immune systems of babies.
A recent study involving public health data derived from more than 650,000 children born in California from 1992 – 2002 suggests that the closer two siblings are born together, the higher the risk for autism in the second child. The data showed that siblings born fewer than 12 months after the first child are much more likely to develop autism compared to those born 25 or more months after the first baby.(3) A likely explanation is maternal nutrition and fatty acid deficiencies as a result of the first pregnancy.
Scientists are also exploring the possibility that conditions in utero not only impact the physical health of the fetus but also emotional and mental well being. Catherine Monk, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, reports that even before birth a mother’s moods may affect her child’s development. There are measurable signs of stress in the fetuses of women who are depressed or anxious during pregnancy. In addition, there have been increased rates of premature delivery and low birth weight among babies born to depressed women, suggesting there are links between a mother’s mood and an infant’s sensitivity to stress, and perhaps even temperament, after birth.(4)
Unfortunately, environmental toxins play a significant role in fetal development in today’s world. As an example, on a daily basis most of us are exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pollutants that come from burning fossil fuels, among other things. Pregnant women pass this chemical to their developing babies, and significant DNA damage due to PAHs has been found in the cord blood of newborns. PAH pollution during pregnancy is also linked to adverse birth outcomes including low birth weight, premature delivery, and heart malformations.
Although there are many things as we cannot control about our environment, we can and must take proactive steps to reduce toxic exposures, eat wisely and minimize stress during pregnancy. See Greening the Womb Intro for practical steps you can take to make a difference in your baby’s health. Additionally, Dr. Getzelman offers prenatal nutrition and greening the womb consultations for pregnant women and couples who want to become pregnant. Please contact us at GetzWell for additional information and to make an appointment: 415.826.1701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Paul, Annie Murphy. “Time” 4 October 2010: 50-55.
2. Paul, Annie Murphy. “Time” 4 October 2010: 50-55.
3. Cheslack-Postava K. Pediatrics. 2011; doi:10.1542/peds.2010-2371.
4. Paul, Annie Murphy. “Time” 4 October 2010: 50-55.