Nature, Nurture, and The Uterine Environment
October 4, 2010 1 Comment
An article published by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, At Risk From the Womb, discusses the mounting evidence that the uterine environment – rather than genes or environment alone – has an important impact on development. Several new studies have demonstrated that the mother’s health directly affects the long-term mental and physical health of the developing fetus. A recent article discusses new evidence that women who gain more weight during pregnancy tend to have larger-than-average babies who are prone to childhood obesity (see Gain in Pregnancy Is Linked to Weight Problems in Children). Evidence is mounting that maternal stress – which causes the release of cortisol in the bloodstream – can have negative effects on childhood development.
As this new field of research expands, it is important to keep in mind that for many of these studies – especially those which measure psychological health, intellectual development, and social interactions as outcomes – the multitude of confounding factors makes it difficult to tease out which factor – genes, environment, or uterine environment – were the primary cause in each case. All three of these influences are likely important in different ways – but how important, and how they interact with one another, are more difficult questions.
The impact of this recent news on young mothers, pregnant woman, and woman who have had a miscarriage can be devastating. I have seen several women who, after reading these articles, are wondering if it is their fault that their fetuses and children have health problems. Maybe if they had been thinner, or less stressed, or had eaten better during their pregnancy…things would be different. The new evidence is giving them concrete reasons to feel guilty – and even these feelings of guilt may have an impact on the health of their baby, thus the vicious cycle goes on.
So for the women who are asking themselves these questions, remember that it is a combination of factors – genes, environment, and uterine environment – which come together to influence the health of a baby. We can alter these to some extent, but not completely. And in the end, there is no scientific formula which guarantees that we are optimizing all conditions for a child. During pregnancy, the main tenets of success are relatively basic, and include (1) eating a healthy diet, both before and after the baby is born, to give them the nutrients they need and to reinforce important lifestyle habits for later down the road (2) maintaining a balance in life and finding ways to relieve stress – exercise, yoga, walking, and the list goes on (3) keeping regular appointments with your doctor, to check how you and the baby are doing, to get all of your questions answered, and to make any adjustments to your lifestyle that may be necessary.