Why a run around the block is good for your bump
Judith Woods meets the author who's busy exploding myths about the best way to tackle your pregnancy
Published 05/11/2010 | 05:00
Barely a day goes by without my eight-year-old wrinkling up her nose and reproachfully demanding to know if I have given her bunions.
When I fob her off with the usual vague, "I hope not, darling" flim-flam, she then namechecks all four of my sisters, then all six of their daughters, quizzing me about whether they have bunions, which she knows are hereditary, and horrible.
The truth is, I almost certainly have passed on my bunions, but I couldn't help it -- or could I?
According to a new book, virtually everything I did in pregnancy will have a bearing on her wellbeing, IQ and predisposition to disease.
Never mind the damage mothers are told they inflict on their offspring if they dare to return to work in the first year of baby's life. From the detergents I used, to the food I ate, the amount I exercised, It's All Mummy's Fault.
Actually that would be a fabulous title for Annie Murphy Paul's Origins, a scientific examination of how the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives. Far from being hermetically sealed, babies are susceptible to stress and household chemicals, pollution that their mother breathes and the emotions she feels.
"Pregnant women carry their foetuses with them into the world; in effect, foetuses are out on the traffic-clogged street, present at the smoke-filled party, recipients of the drinks women sip and drugs they swallow. But women can't safeguard foetal health on their own, they need support from society."
At first glance, I thought it made perfect sense. At second glance, however, I wanted to run screaming into the street, unable to bear the burden of guilt.
The idea that my two daughters' intelligence, health and temperament aren't the simple confluence of nature and nurture -- blame your Father, those aren't my knees -- but were influenced by the conditions they encountered in utero, ie in me, is very disturbing.
According to Paul's research, sweets are bad, chocolate is good. High levels of stress -- bad. Moderate stress -- good. You get the picture.
"It's a myth that pregnant women should avoid exercise," she adds. "When a pregnant woman exercises, her foetus gets a beneficial workout too and will 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 they have bigger brains."
When I speak to Paul, I intend to congratulate her on such a readable work of scholarship -- but I find myself sobbing something along the lines of "How could you do this? You're telling me that I've compromised my children's life chances because I did what the books all advised and put my feet up in pregnancy?"
Paul, an American science writer and mother of two, responds in reasonable tones that having collated information from studies worldwide, she is merely the messenger.
"I don't want to increase the burden of guilt and anxiety for pregnant women. We're going to be hearing a lot more about foetal origins in the years to come and I want to offer a positive, productive way of providing information that will help maximise the benefits you can offer your child in pregnancy."
Based in the university town of Connecticut, Paul is married to a professor of law at Yale. She researched the book while pregnant and teetotal with her second child, Gus, who is just over 18 months. As she discovered the latest thinking in the realm of foetal medicine, she adapted her behaviour.
So she ate lots of omega-3 rich fish, which she hadn't with her elder son, Teddy, now four. She took exercise, which she didn't with Teddy. She eschewed caffeine, headache tablets, cold remedies, which she (you're ahead of me) didn't with Teddy; all of which leads one to infer that every night she tucks a living, breathing thesis into bed.
"I don't consider my sons to be a scientific experiment," insists Paul. "They are different and wonderful and utterly perfect to me, because I'm their mother. I acted the way I did with each pregnancy, based on the information available to me and did the best I could, both times.
"There's really no such thing as a perfect pregnancy and it would be crazy to strive for it and always fall short. Pregnant women constantly find other people interfering; I was in Starbucks ordering a large steamed milk that must have looked like a giant coffee because a man next to me said 'That had better be decaf'."
Interestingly, Paul felt affronted rather than flattered by his concern, which rather contradicts the idea that society must pull together to promote foetal health.
"Just because a woman is pregnant doesn't make her public property, she is free to make choices. All we can do is give women help and advice and support. Anything else would be patronising and offensive."
In Origins, Paul points to research that moderate stress accelerates the development of babies' nervous systems; women who report modest anxiety and daily stress have children with better motor and mental development scores at the age of two. But Pregnant Superwoman Syndrome, to which professionals are particularly prone, is having a deleterious effect.
'Women who work through pregnancy and take on extra responsibilities to prove that their abilities haven't been diminished, do themselves and their babies no favours," she says. "A Californian study of pregnant women found that those who took time off before their babies' birth were four times less likely to need a Caesarean delivery."
Other findings include women with severe morning sickness really are more likely to have girls; women who have a big appetite are more likely to be carrying a boy. And women who gain excessive weight in pregnancy have four times the risk of giving birth to an overweight child, which will persist into adolescence, increasing the risk of diabetes.
Obesity, says Paul, represents the greatest threat to the next generation. She stresses that direct causal links are hard to establish; and most outcomes are due to the interplay of genes, environment and the mother's behaviour in pregnancy.
So Not Entirely All Mummy's Fault, then. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but we must take maternal consolation where we can. And the guilt is only going to increase.
"This research is real and happening and we can ignore it or we can try to understand it in some kind of productive and worthwhile way."
Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, by Annie Murphy Paul is published by Hay House