Maternal Nutrition: Prenatal Effects on the Unborn Baby
The nutritional status of the mother before and during pregnancy has been found to affect the fetus with long-term consequences that present in adulthood such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. Barker has shown that diet during pregnancy has long term effects, showing a correlation between fetal nourishment and diabetes and heart disease in adulthood (1).
Not only can the roots of physical health be traced to fetal wellbeing, but in laying the foundations of hormonal patterns and interactions with the environment, sound maternal nutrition may also lead to the psychological and emotional wellbeing of the fetus and future infant. Nutrition has profound effects on fetal hormones and on the metabolic interactions between the fetus and the placenta, affecting fetal growth (2). Changes in fetal nutrition affect fetal insulin and insulin-like growth factors, which are thought to play a major role in the regulation of fetal growth.
While lack of nourishment may retard fetal growth, it may also lead to an increase in the production of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress, which in prolonged concentrations may affect brain cell differentiation (3). Effects in the first three months of pregnancy may be harmful to the development of the brain, including memory centres and areas of emotional responsiveness, such as the hippocampus (4).
Research on fetal habituation responses to auditory stimuli suggests that fetal memory is active from about the 22nd week of gestation (5-10). It may serve no function, or it may serve a practice function, similar to the fetal breathing movements that appear from 12 weeks gestation mimicking the breathing movements necessary after birth. Prenatal memory may be important for the development of attachment behaviours, such as preferring the mother’s voice after birth as a result of prenatal learning, to distinguish the mother’s speech sounds from other sounds, or recognizing the smell of the mother’s body and/or colostrum, which may have a similar smell to the amniotic fluid (11-14). Prenatal memory may also be important for the establishment of breastfeeding as the amniotic fluid, like the breast milk, is flavoured by the mother’s diet, and the fetus swallows amniotic fluid from about the 12th week of gestation (15-17). The fetus has been shown to differentiate between various speech sounds in the womb, thus suggesting that prenatal memory may also be vital in the acquisition of language (18-21).
Given the above information we should be paying alot more attention to the mother in early pregnancy and indeed the young adult or teenager before pregnancy occurs. The above knowledge should inform government and global policy. We are in the process of creating the future of humanity here.
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