Can you imagine interviewing scientists and reading reams of research about how various situations can affect a fetus in the womb and far beyond -- while you were pregnant yourself? Mom of two Annie Murphy Paul did just that while writing "Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives," a new book that explores the field of "fetal origins" research through the lens of Paul's own pregnancy. She kindly took some time out of her hectic schedule to chat with us about how her findings affected her life -- and her child's.
momlogic: What inspired you to write the book?
Annie Murphy Paul: I'm a science writer, so my job is to look around for interesting and important new ideas in science. For a few years, I had been noticing a lot of work around the prenatal period and "fetal origins." It was kind of mind-bending to me, the idea that something that happens in fetal life can have effects into childhood and even decades after birth. So I started looking into that and then I got pregnant, so the whole field took on a more personal relevance. I thought, if what I do during pregnancy is going to affect my child potentially for the rest of his life, I'd like to know more about this ... and being a pregnant woman and a science writer and exploring this burgeoning field from both perspectives would be a valuable exercise. The book is structured around the nine months of my pregnancy, and each month I explore a different path.
ml: Which discoveries surprised you the most?
AMP: In general, I found [that] what happens in the womb can have such a long-lasting effect. That was really surprising to me. The other surprising thing was how old and widespread the idea was that we're shaped by events and experiences before birth. I came to conclude that it was only for a brief period in the mid-20th century that the medical establishment had this notion of the fetus as the perfect parasite sealed away in the placenta, skimming off what it needed from the woman and not being affected by what she ate. Most cultures in most times have believed the fetus is impressionable, that it does sort of take on the marks of the woman and her world. In terms of specific findings, because pregnant women (including myself) worry so much about stress during pregnancy and its potential harmful effects, I was surprised and pleased by the research that said that a moderate amount of stress was actually good for the fetus and that it helped them mature and accelerate the development of the fetal nervous system. As adults, if we take a test a little bit nervous, we do better on the test than if we're really relaxed. Also, I was vaguely aware of the whole BPA controversy, but I was surprised to find out how widespread these harmful chemicals are and how little testing has been done in terms of how they affect fetal development.
ml: The cumulative findings in your third-month chapter say stress can contribute to some pretty serious symptoms, such as preterm labor, low birth weight, cognitive delays and schizophrenia. But in this post-9/11, post-Katrina world, it seems there is sometimes little we can do to protect ourselves. What are moms who are disaster victims supposed to do?
AMP: The reason I wrote that chapter, in terms of public health efforts in a disaster, is that pregnant women need to be put at the top of the list along with the elderly and children. We may not think of pregnant women, especially early on, as a particularly vulnerable population, but in fact they are. It's actually in the early weeks and months of pregnancy that the fetus is susceptible to really dramatic stress. So I think something we can do as a society is to protect pregnant women better than we are [doing] now. In the chapter, I go into some of the emergency precautions that pregnant women can take in terms of creating an emergency kit and having an emergency plan. It's just a fact of life that these things are not predictable or avoidable, but I think we can be aware more than we are now that pregnant women should be at the top of our lists in terms of offering assistance and protection. We certainly don't want to treat women in a paternalistic way, but the expectation that pregnant women can do everything a non-pregnant person can do, and that they shouldn't ask for or need help -- some of these expectations have become the problem in and of themselves and are oppressive in their own way.
ml: A few critics have taken you to task for giving pregnant women yet more to "feel guilty" about. Would you comment on that?
AMP: I was very aware of that while I was writing the book. I was pregnant myself and subject to the same anxieties and worries that all pregnant women have. But I tried in the book to create a framework for thinking about these findings in a different way, which on their own can be a source of stress and worry. I hope I portray myself in the book as working through these anxieties and arriving at another place. I try to say [that] when you get these messages from the newspaper or your friends or your mother, it can sound like one scary message after another. But if you look at this as an exciting and dynamic field of research that's actually offering us a lot of hope in preventing public health problems like diabetes or obesity, or, on a more personal level, like you're shaping and molding your fetus before birth, it's a positive thing. Women are told "don't do this" or "don't do that" for fear of harming the fetus, but then again, for nine months, we forget that a woman's body is nurturing and nourishing and protecting that fetus, or it wouldn't be able to survive. We need a middle ground where we can learn about this science and integrate it into our lives in a positive or proactive way.
ml: Since his birth, have you noticed anything in your own son that agrees with or defies what you discovered while researching your book?
AMP: All you can say about any particular relationship between cause and effect is that having some condition during pregnancy raises or lowers your risk of some outcomes. It's impossible to say that because I did X my son is Y, but I will say he would be a perfect advertisement for whatever I did during pregnancy, because he was born incredibly healthy and incredibly happy.
Curious to learn more? Read "Origins" for yourself -- it's in bookstores now!