Thursday 22 March 2018

Can an unborn baby really taste curry?

Pregnancy is a time like no other for old wives' tales. But which are true, and which are hokum? Science writer and 'Bumpology' author Linda Geddes has the answers

Two-and-a-half years ago when I found myself pregnant, I was bursting with questions about my developing child. Each week I would obsessively scour pregnancy books and websites for details of what my little foetus could be expected to accomplish in the coming days, trying to build up a picture of what he or she was up to in there.

But although knowing my little one was growing fingernails that week was mildly interesting, none of the books told me what I really wanted to know: when would he or she become conscious?

Was there any truth to old wives' tales such as "weird food cravings mean you're having a boy", or "if your bump is low, you're having a girl"?

I was also bemused by conflicting advice on eating, drinking and exercise – eating too much may raise the baby's risk of obesity or diabetes; or exercise could trigger a miscarriage – much of which seemed to fly in the face of common sense.

Looking at online pregnancy forums, I realised that other women were asking similar questions, often falling back on anecdote and received wisdom.

The tipping point came when I was tucking into a chicken jalfrezi at an Indian restaurant, and felt my baby do a somersault. Could he or she taste what I was eating, and did they object to it? I had to find out.

As a reporter for New Scientist, I had access to the thousands of scientific journals that are published each month so I began to hunt for the answers. What I discovered amazed and excited me. I learnt that some couples really are statistically more likely to have boys – those who already have three boys, or men with lots of brothers – although no one understands why. I discovered that unborn babies can see, hear, feel and remember experiences from their time in the womb, and that some of this may help prepare them for life on the outside.

And babies probably can taste curry – or at least the garlic in curry – and this may make them more receptive to it when it is introduced to their diet later on.

Even after our daughter, Matilda, was born, questions continued to prick at my mind.

I discovered that babies already have some concept of who their mother is; what a human face looks like; and an appreciation of numbers and language. Newborn babies already seem capable of distinguishing their mother's voice from that of a stranger's.

I became similarly well-read in the science of baby poo: what causes it to change colour or consistency, and just how many bacteria live in it. (None at birth, but around a trillion per millilitre by the end of the first month.)

I was also frequently angered by what I read.

Contrary to what pregnant women are told, there is no strong evidence that eating peanuts, exercising or lying on your back during pregnancy harms the baby. Even the science underpinning government advice on how much alcohol it is safe to drink is far from clear cut. There's no doubt that drinking large amounts of alcohol is harmful to unborn babies, but there is a massive grey zone concerning small to moderate amounts.

Shortly after I had decided to turn my research into a book – Bumpology – I discovered that I was pregnant with my second child. This time it was a very different experience. The more I researched, the more I realised that much of what I had been told during my first pregnancy was not backed up by evidence.

This time around, I was still obsessed with the little person that was growing inside me and terrified of miscarriage during the early weeks. However, I took comfort in knowing that the oft-cited statistic of one in three pregnancies ending in miscarriage is a gross generalisation.

I was generally more relaxed about what I ate, but more vigilant about avoiding things like Camembert or drinking more than a couple of glasses of wine per week.

However, what really incensed me was the discovery that much of what I'd been told by antenatal teachers and even some midwives about birth during my first pregnancy, wasn't necessarily borne out by the evidence.

For example, women are often told that having their labour artificially kick-started if they run past their due date will increase their chances of needing a caesarean or having their baby pulled out with forceps. But if you compare the relevant groups of women, being induced at 42 weeks of pregnancy actually decreases the risk of a caesarean compared to doing nothing and simply waiting for the baby to arrive of its own accord.

I also felt short-changed by those antenatal teachers who glossed over some of the less convenient truths about birth and early motherhood first time around, such as the risks of tearing during labour and just how difficult breastfeeding can be.

I was beginning to think that some of this anger was misplaced, when only last week a terrified pregnant friend called to say that a midwife had told her that having an epidural to dull the pain of labour would mean she was more likely to need forceps to deliver her baby; and that if she gave birth in a midwife-run birthing centre, she would be unlikely to tear because they would make sure the baby was delivered slowly.

It is true that epidurals increase the risk of an instrumental delivery involving forceps, but only very slightly. In fact, around 20 women would need to have an epidural for just one to need an extra instrumental delivery, and not necessarily because the drugs make it harder to push, but because if you're already anaesthetised you're possibly more likely to be considered a candidate for a forceps delivery.

What's more, no one can guarantee that you won't tear during childbirth, and in skirting around this issue antenatal teachers often neglect to reassure women that tearing really isn't that bad.

Meanwhile, I have been surprised by just how much remains unknown about pregnancy, birth and babies.

Although several interesting theories exist, we still don't know for sure what causes morning sickness – even though some women, like Kate Middleton, have to be hospitalised for it.

And although there is some preliminary evidence that stress during pregnancy results in more active and irritable babies, I'd love to know if relaxed mothers are more likely to have a chilled-out baby. Our second child, Max, was born in September, and so far (in my uncontrolled, unscientific study of two), this seems to be the case.

My research has given me greater confidence that many of my instincts about motherhood are probably correct – or at least unlikely to cause harm – and as a result, I have been more laissez-faire about the whole thing.

For now, at least, Max seems to share my relaxed attitude to babyhood, while energetic Matilda continues to run circles around all of us.

Pregnancy is a time of great wonder. Having a baby can be one of the greatest joys that life bestows, but it is hard work. Parents-to-be can therefore do without any unnecessary guilt, anxiety or doubt.

Irish Independent

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