The foundation of your baby’s intelligence is being built while he is still a fetus. This stage of your baby’s life is very critical because this is where the raw materials of his intelligence and personality are being formed. Fetal brain development has long lasting effect on your baby’s personality.
Congenital malformations, premature delivery and many other conditions have a serious effect on your infant’s future and quality of life. You should be aware of factors that can have an effect on your baby’s prenatal development, and avoid those that can be avoided.
Harmful to Baby’s Brain Development During Pregnancy
Some of these factors that have harmful effect on your baby’s prenatal brain development, according to latest studies, are as follows:
1. Age of parents – A University of Queensland, Australia study suggests that becoming a father at age 40 or older is linked to baby at a higher risk of schizopherenia, autism and syndromes that cause facial and skull abnormalities. They also found that those born to older dads scored more poorly on a range of intelligence tests that looked at concentration, memory, reasoning and reading skills.
The age of the mother is also linked to autism, according to a study published in Autism research. The study found that for every 5 year increase in mother’s age, her risk of having an autistic child rose by 18 percent. For older fathers, the effect was strongly noted only when their partners were under 30.
However, older fathers increase the risk of children having mental illness. According to a study, children born to men 45 and older have more risk of developing psychosis, autism, and attention deficit disorder, compared to children with fathers aged 20 to 24. The children also tended to struggle more with academics and substance abuse.
2. Father’s Job – A father’s job can raise a baby’s risk of having a birth defect, according to a study by the University of North Carolina. Those in the high risk group include artists, photographers, hairdressers, mathematicians and office support workers. It is hypothesized that this is caused by chemical or physical exposures and exposure mixtures common to such occupations.
3. Early Birth (Even Slightly) – According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, babies born at 37 weeks and 38 weeks had significantly lower reading scores compared to children born at 39, 40 or 41 weeks. Math scores were also lower for children born at 37 or 38 weeks. That’s why researchers discourage elective induction or induced labor. “The thing to keep in mind is that a child born 36 weeks, 6 days has brain size two-thirds that of a term infant,” said Dr. Bryan Williams, associate professor of family and preventative medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “They’re still at a deficit with regard to brain development.”
4. Inadequate nutrition – The lack of calcium, iron, iodine and other vitamins lead to baby’s learning disabilities, delay in language development, behavioral problems, delayed motor skill development, and a lower I.Q. The baby needs iodine to make thyroid hormone, which is essential for brain development. Iron is needed to make red blood cells that transport oxygen to the baby, affecting the baby’s brain and body growth.
5. Folic acid deficiency – This leads to the baby’s neural tube being unable to close properly. The neural tube is the tissue from which the brain and spinal cord develop. Improper closing of this tube leads to severe malformations of the brain and spinal cord. Folic acid is found in green leafy vegetables, broccoli, beans, citrus fruits and liver.
6. Vitamin D insufficiency– This is associated with poor growth of the baby and asthma. According to the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research published in Pediatrics, children born to mothers with low levels of Vitamin D during pregnancy are twice as likely to have severe language problems when they are in school.
7. Medication – As a rule, pregnant women are advised not to take any medication especially during the first trimester of pregnancy. A common medicine like aspirin, for example, can cause bleeding in a child’s brain because of its ability to stop blood clot.
Acetaminophen use in pregnancy may be linked to ADHD and hyperactivity (although women should still take it if required by physicians and if the risk of not treating fever or pain can be much higher than the risk of behavioral issues on the child). Opiod painkillers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin may also cause birth defects and other serious pregnancy problems.
Taking a popular class of antidepressants, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), during pregnancy may significantly increase autism risk. Taking antidepressants may also increase the risk of the child displaying anxiety symptoms.
8. Stress (and starvation) – A Lancet study suggested that a mother’s stress during pregnancy may increase the risk of congenital brain malfunction in the baby. A British and Danish study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that severe emotional stress during the first months of a woman’s pregnancy may permanently impair the neurodevelopment of her unborn child, leading to an increased risk of schizophrenia later in life. The stress referred here is not caused by the usual anxiety of daily life but those that are severe like emotional shock or death in the family. The damage to the baby is possibly caused by increased stress hormone cortisol interfering with fetal development.
9. Mother’s mental state – A fetus is sensitive to and can be affected by the mother’s mental state. It is already preparing for life after birth based on the messages that the mom is providing. The study from the University of California, Irvine, suggests that development is best in babies with moms who were either depression-free or had depression before and after giving birth.
10. Lack of sunshine – An Australian National University study found that children whose mothers had low exposure to sunlight during the first 3 months of pregnancy may have a higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis later in life. Vitamin D in sunlight is important for the fetus’ development of central nervous system.
11. Tobacco and smoking – Nicotine from smoke causes constriction of blood vessels, reducing blood flow and nutrition in the placenta. Researchers at Turku University Hospital in Finland found out that children exposed to prenatal smoking have more risk of developing psychiatric problems in childhood and young adulthood because prenatal nicotine exposure interferes with the development of fetal brain cells that are important for normal cognitive development. A research is Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, Denmark also suggests that smoking leads to risk of the baby having a debilitating eye disorder called strabismus (more popularly known as “cross-eyes”).
12. Alcohol – Alcohol crosses the placenta and intoxicates the baby. Drinking while pregnant leads to a baby with lower IQ, poor attention span, poor cognitive skills, poor memory, attention deficits, impulsive behavior and poor cause-effect reasoning, and motor function disabilities. Heavy drinking during pregnancy leads to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is linked to fetal abnormalities, such as smaller head with underdeveloped brain, and permanent central nervous system damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as The American Academy of Pediatrics advice women not to drink alcohol in any amount.
13. Pollution – Kids exposed to traffic-related pollutants during pregnancy for the first year of life are at increased risk of autism. Children with autism are two to three times more likely than other children to have been exposed to car exhaust, smog, and other air pollutants during their earliest days, according to a new study.
14. Epilepsy drug – Taking Valproate during pregnancy produces babies with diminished IQ, according to a New England Journal of Medicine research.
15. Marijuana – Babies whose mothers smoked marijuana while pregnant show behavioral and emotional problem, speech and language defects, and memory disorders.
16. Cocaine – This drug causes the baby to have increased risk of abnormality of the skull called microcephaly. The skull is very small, and there is no room for brain to grow. This results in mental retardation. This also increases the risk of haemorrhage in the baby’s brain, which can result to irreversible brain damage.
17. Heroin – The baby will also exhibit withdrawal symptoms as if they have been addicted to drug themselves. As the baby grows up, he suffers from various behavioral and social disorders.
18. Pesticides – According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides, commonly used on food crops, is associated with a child having a lower intelligence score at 7 years old. It is recommended that mothers-to-be thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables, or consider buying organic produce to avoid pesticide exposure from food.
19. Rubella or German Measles – This disease shows mild symptom to the mother , but can cause severe mental retardation, hearing loss and cataracts in the infant. It can cause severe malformations if the mother contracts the infection in the first month of pregnancy.
20. Toxoplasmosis – This produces mild symptom for the mother but can give rise to mental retardation, epilepsy, blindness or hearing disorders in the baby. Toxoplasmosis can infect a pregnant woman through feces of cats and eating raw meat or eggs.
21. Cytomegalovirus – This also produces little or no symptoms on the mother, but causes mental retardation and deafness in the fetus, especially in the first 2 trimester. This virus can be transmitted through saliva, blood, urine, semen and other bodily fluids.
22. Syphilis – This sexually transmitted disease leads to severe complications in the brain, eyes, bones, skin and liver of newborns.
23. Genital herpes – The infection is usually transmitted to the baby during delivery. This causes severe illness and severe brain damage if not treated promptly. When transmitted to the fetus, gives rise to brain, eye and skin disorder.
24. Other toxic chemicals – The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists cautions women to avoid industrial chemicals from paint fumes, new fabrics, furniture, and cars. They also suggest to minimize use of moisturizers and shower gels. Also using fresh food than processed food will minimize exposure to chemicals in packaging, according to a Daily Mail article . A review published in The Lancet Neurology journal identifies chemicals that may be toxic to children’s developing brain and may cause a number of neurodevelopmental disabilities. They are lead, methylmercury, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and toluene. Scientists also note that the number of chemicals that are found to possibly harmful to the developing brain is growing.
Benefits Baby’s Brain Development
Factors that are found to be beneficial to the baby’s brain development in the womb are as follows:
1. Woman’s age – Women who give birth in their 30’s are found to be more likely to have intelligent children, according to Researchers at the London School of Economics. This may not be due to the age itself but, according to LSE researcher Alice Goisis, “First-time mothers in their 30s are, for example, likely to be more educated, have higher incomes, are more likely to be in stable relationships, have healthier lifestyles, seek prenatal care earlier and have planned their pregnancies.”
2. Love and care for the baby – Mothers who feel and show love for the baby in the womb have babies who are healthier, happier and relaxed. Bonding with the unborn baby and talking to her in a gentle and loving manner will have positive effects on her memory and emotions. Talking to the baby in the womb is also beneficial since the baby is building the foundations of language.
3. Gaining enough weight – Gaining too much weight leads to a large baby and a difficult delivery, and this can be risky to the baby’s brain. Gaining too little weight causes the baby to have smaller heads and brain, which has been linked to lower IQ. The ideal weight gain, according to obstetricians, is between 25 to 35 pounds.
4. Seafoods, fish and Omega-3 – Researchers found that infants born to mothers with higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) at delivery had advanced levels of attention spans up to age 2. During the first six months of life, these infants were two months ahead of those babies whose mothers had lower DHA levels. Also according to Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the US FDA’s acting chief scientist, women who consumed more fish during pregnancy improved the IQ of their children. Another study from the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona reveals that there is a consistent reduction in autism-spectrum traits when mothers have an increased fish consumption. Mother’s consumption of fish during the first semester seem to have more effect in the improvement of children’s intelligence test scores, compared to consumption later in pregnancy.
The FDA recommends eating up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are low in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Other good fish choices include swordfish and albacore tuna, mackerel, sardines and anchovies.
Although there is a risk that you might consume fish that is contaminated with mercury, known to cause developmental problems, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that this risk may be offset by Omega-3 and other beneficial nutrients in fish.
5. Moderate Exercise – Exercise during pregnancy could be beneficial for improving fetal breathing movements and also for autonomous nervous system development, according to a study presented at The American Physiological Society. A study conducted by James F. Clapp, M.D., of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland also found evidence suggesting that mothers who continue to work out during pregnancy have smarter babies. Also, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Montreal, as little as 20 minutes of exercise three times per week can advance a newborn’s brain activity, Aerobic exercise increase mitochondrial activity in a mother’s brain, and this effect crosses the placenta and benefit the fetal brain as well.
6. Bacon and eggs – boost the intelligence of the unborn baby , according to Dr. Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology journal. This is caused by the micronutrient choline, which is vital in having babies in the womb develop parts of their brains linked to memory and recall.
7. Late-term birth – According to a report in JAMA Pediatrics, late-term infants (born in the 41st week of pregnancy) when school-aged have higher standardized test scores, a greater percentage classified as gifted, and a smaller percentage having poor cognitive outcomes. But there is a trade-off. Infants staying a week longer in the womb have a slightly increased risk of physical disability.
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