Kimberly Allers: For some time, I've been distressed about the double whammy facing black women.
Our babies have the highest rates of low birth-weight and infant mortality, and we have the highest rates of heart disease and detectable cancers. Our children die more often -- and we die more often. Shamefully, the answers as to why we are seemingly cursed both in our own lives and when we bring life into the world remains a deep mystery. Yes, diet, exercise and lifestyle play a part. Other studies point to stress as a key culprit. But researchers have not yet been able to fully explain both health disparities.
Turns out, the problem may be in our wombs.
There's new medical research looking into an area of epigenetics called "fetal programming." Fetal programming refers to the process whereby a stimulus or insult, at a critical point in fetal development, creates permanent changes in the structure and function of the baby's vital organs, leaving lasting or even lifelong health consequences.
The idea of fetal programming was first introduced by Dr. David Barker and his colleagues at the University of Southampton in England. Barker and his team identified a connection between poor fetal growth inside the womb (which resulted in low birth-weight) and coronary heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and many other chronic adult illnesses later in life.
Barker hypothesized that, just as a computer is programmed, a baby's heart and other vital organs are also "programmed" inside the womb. If something negative happens during pregnancy, then those organs may not get the proper programming and never fully function at their best over a lifetime.
So what happened during my mother's pregnancy could have preprogrammed me for later illnesses, and what happened during my pregnancy could be setting my children up for illness when they are adults. If black women continue the pattern of high-stress pregnancies and low birth-weight babies, then we are setting up our children for chronic illness later in life.
Sometimes the impact doesn't even take that long to show up. One study linked maternal stress to ADHD in children. When a pregnant woman is stressed out, her baby is immersed in a stress hormone called cortisol. Studies show that overexposure to cortisol in the womb results in permanent changes in the structure and function of the fetal brain. There are more and more studies linking maternal anxiety and stress during pregnancy to neurological disorders in children, including ADHD. Other studies have linked the pregnancy experience to childhood obesity and other problems.
The thing is, understanding the deep impact our pregnancy experiences can have on our children and our children's children really makes me rethink pregnancy -- and makes me wanna holla at all black women to do the same. For us, pregnancy is not about 40 weeks and a birth outcome. It is about 40 weeks and the rest of our child's life.