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How Adult Health May Be Tied to Fetal Experience


What makes us who we are and how we are? How much responsibility can we or should we take for our adult selves -- or is it possible that so much of ourselves, including our susceptibility to disease, our intelligence and temperament, our appetite and metabolism, relate back to the nine months we spent in our mother’s womb? Annie Murphy Paul, a magazine journalist and book author, has attempted to answer some of those questions in her new book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, a look at the emerging field of fetal origins research. Not only are we the way we are because of our DNA, childhood experiences, and lifestyle choices as adults, but also because of our fetal experience, which can affect us well into our adult lives, influencing the functioning of our organs and the wiring of our brains.

Although some will surely cast the book in a negative light (Here’s yet more to feel anxious and guilt-ridden about during pregnancy), Paul frames the ever-evolving research into fetal origins as far more positive. Yes, she highlights fascinating new studies that show connections:

  • between low birth weight and a higher risk of heart disease later in life
  • between a mother’s excessive weight gain during pregnancy and a child’s propensity to become overweight or obese (a study we covered here earlier this month)
  • between a diabetic mother’s high blood sugar and the metabolism of her fetus, predisposing it to diabetes
  • between moderate levels of maternal stress during pregnancy and accelerated brain development at 2 weeks of age and better motor and mental development scores at age 2
  • between severe stress and a host of outcomes ranging from schizophrenia to increased risk of disabilities to lower level of education and lower earning power
  • between environmental pollution and increased cancer risk

But, Paul says, instead of an expectant mother feeling even more anxious at the potential impact of each and every decision she makes while pregnant, she sees a positive alternative: that fetal origins research may open “new possibilities for improving public health, combating afflictions like obesity and diabetes by intervening before birth,” as she wrote in a guest post over at Motherlode earlier this week. She adds that this research shows that “many, if not most, of the problematic conditions encountered by pregnant women and their fetuses are collective in nature (matters of food safety, environmental pollution, safety in disaster situations, and so on) and require collective solutions -- not more responsibility and blame piled on individual pregnant women for situations they can’t possibly rectify on their own.”

Finally, Paul concludes by adding that in discovering new evidence of the importance of prenatal conditions, as a society, we should empower pregnant women to have the healthiest pregnancies possible, not to shame or guilt-trip them for their behavior.  

Moms, does this new research into the importance of the time in the womb give you hope for the possibilities to give your baby a better, healthier life, or does it just make you more anxious about what you should and should not be doing while pregnant?