Cutting-edge fetal research is challenging some of the conventional wisdom about pregnancy, producing findings that may surprise you. (Here's one: Eating chocolate during pregnancy is a good idea!) Read on to find out more about what science can tell us about how pregnancy really works.
Stress during pregnancy is always bad for the fetus.
REALITY: New research shows that a moderate level of stress is actually good for the fetus: It tones the fetus's nervous system and accelerates its development. Women who experienced moderate stress during pregnancy have two-week-old infants with brains that work at a faster speed than infants of mothers without the same stress, and two-year old toddlers with higher motor and mental development scores.
Pregnant women shouldn't eat sweets.
REALITY: There's a big exception to this rule: chocolate. New studies show that pregnant women who eat chocolate every day during pregnancy have babies who show less fear and smile and laugh more often at six months of age. Another study finds that women who eat five or more servings of chocolate each week during their third trimester have a 40 percent lower risk of developing the dangerous high blood pressure condition known as preeclampsia.
Pregnant women should avoid exercise.
REALITY: Actually, when a pregnant woman exercises, her fetus gets a beneficial workout, too. Research shows that the fetuses of pregnant women who are physically active have heart rates that are slower and more variable; both signs of cardiovascular health. The babies of exercisers have lower birth weights, and may even become more intelligent adults because of their bigger brains.
Pregnant women should stay away from seafood.
REALITY: In fact, eating lots of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury during pregnancy produces smarter kids. Children whose mothers ate at least twelve ounces of seafood a week during pregnancy had higher verbal IQ, better social and communication skills, and superior motor skills, according to a study published in a leading journal.
There is such a thing as an ideal or perfect pregnancy that women should strive for.
REALITY: Research is revealing that pregnancy is not a generically ideal experience to which one must aspire (and, inevitably, fall short of), but instead a highly personal and particular shaping of the fetus for the specific world into which it will be welcomed. The mix of influences the encounters in the womb are as individual and idiosyncratic as the pregnant woman herself -- and that's the way nature intended it.
Pregnancy is really just a nine-month wait for the big event: birth.
REALITY: Scientists are learning that pregnancy is a crucial period in itself: "the staging ground for well-being and disease in later life," as one researcher puts it. Indeed, pregnancy is now nothing less than a scientific frontier. Obstetrics was once a sleepy medical specialty, and research on pregnancy a scientific backwater. Now the nine months of gestation are the focus of intense interest and excitement, and the subject of an exploding number of journal articles, books, and conferences.
The fetus is an inert being, a blob of tissue, and the pregnant woman is its passive incubator -- or a source of always-imminent harm.
REALITY: Fetal research is revealing that the fetus is an active and dynamic creature, responding and even adapting to its surroundings as it readies itself for life in the particular world it will soon enter. Meanwhile, scientists are learning that the pregnant woman is a powerful and often positive influence on her child even before it's born.
We need to focus on all the things that can go wrong during pregnancy.
REALITY: As researchers are now discovering, it is conditions in the womb that make a lot of things go right in later life. The prenatal period, it turns out, is where many of the springs of health and strength and well-being are found, leading scientists to a new and much more positive perspective on pregnancy.
A fetus is sealed away in the uterus, unaffected by what's going on outside.
REALITY: Much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life -- the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she's exposed to -- are shared in some fashion with her fetus. Pregnant women can protect their fetuses by abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, by purchasing plastic products that are phthalate- and BPA-free, and by not putting plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher.
All women feel happy during pregnancy.
REALITY: Research shows that pregnant women are just as likely as other women to suffer from mood disorders: Psychiatrists estimate that about 20 percent of pregnant women experience anxiety or depression. Depression during pregnancy can increase the risk of premature delivery and low birth weight, so pregnant women who think they may be depressed should talk to their obstetricians. Therapy or antidepressant medication can help.
Pregnant women don't need any special help during natural disasters and other emergencies.
REALITY: In fact, research indicates the stress of traumatic events can negatively affect the fetus. A study showing earlier births among pregnant women who experienced an earthquake in California and delayed development among children whose pregnant mothers suffered through an ice storm in Canada, is prompting new attention to the care of pregnant women in emergencies. Pregnant women can prepare themselves for such a situation by devising an emergency plan and by putting together an emergency kit, filled with bottled water, canned food, flashlights, a battery-powered radio, and a first-aid kit. (For more information, check the website of the Red Cross: www.redcross.org.)
Prenatal influences are about enrichment activities like playing Mozart for the fetus.
REALITY: The nine-month-long process of shaping and molding that goes on in the womb is far more important than that: It is a crucial process of preparation for the specific world the baby will enter. What a fetus is absorbing in utero isn't the music of Mozart, but the answers to questions much more critical to its survival: Will it be born into a world of abundance, or scarcity? Will it be safe and protected, or will it face constant dangers and threats? Will it live a long, fruitful life, or a short, harried one? The resulting tuning and tweaking of the fetus's brain and other organs are part of what give humans their enormous flexibility, their ability to thrive in varied environments.
The notion that your month of birth can tell anything about you is just foolish astrology.
REALITY: Actually, fetal research is showing that the time of year you were born can have a lasting impact on your mental and physical health. Individuals who were born in the late summer or early fall are taller and have thicker bones than people born at other times of year, for example, and people who were born in the late winter or early spring are 10 percent more likely to develop schizophrenia.
You can tell a baby's sex from an ultrasound or amniocentesis; all the other methods of prediction you hear about are silly old wives' tales.
REALITY: In fact, fetal research is confirming some of the folklore about how to tell the sex of a baby. Women who have severe morning sickness really are more likely to have girls; women who have a big appetite are in fact more likely to be carrying boys; and women who rely on a dream or a "feeling" have a surprisingly good chance of being right.
The development of conditions like obesity and diabetes has to do with the lifestyle choices we make as adults, not with our experience as fetuses.
REALITY: Actually, it's not only our lifestyle as adults that leads to disease, but the lifestyle our mothers practiced when they were pregnant with us. Low birth weight, for example, has an effect on the functioning of the blood vessels in later life that is as great as the effects of smoking. Each one-kilogram decrease in birth weight leads to a reduction in the capacity of blood vessels equivalent to smoking twenty cigarettes a day for four and a half years.
Children become overweight because of a genetic predisposition or because of family eating habits -- not because of anything that happened during pregnancy.
REALITY: Women who gain more than the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy have four times the risk of having an overweight child -- a relationship that persists into the offspring's adolescence. Research shows that children born to normal-weight mothers are less likely to be fat and have bodies that process fats and carbohydrates in a healthier way than brothers and sisters born to the same mother when she was overweight.
Copyright © 2010 Meredith Corporation.