First, stress during pregnancy. Good-stress (doing something exciting) or frightened stress, with someone fearful for their safety, bodies react with stress hormones: adrenaline, epinephrine, cortisol and more. I imagine that the terrified stress of war zone or domestic violence will have a different chemical mix in their body than, say, a nurse in ICU who thrives on “running a code” and the challenge of saving that person’s life.
A fetus who gets accustomed to feeling stress chemicals as a baseline would miss the stressed high level of alert. Have you ever seen someone who seems to NEED to be unhappy or frightened or stressed? It’s possible that this is what has caused it.
Exposure to toxins in food, water, and air (see previous post). We believe that coal fired power plants put off heavy metals. Some are claiming that microwaves, and styrofoam take-out containers are harmful. I have not seen a study about drinking from styrofoam containers. There are triclosans in lots of things we ingest, including toothpaste. If we think oil is not good for you, how sure are we about synthetic clothing derived from oil? Certainly we want to protect our children from fire, but are the chemicals they put in children’s pajamas affecting them? You know, the list can go on and on, and get us downright paranoid. My advice is to exercise your best prudence, and make your best choices.
One of the largest impacts on the development of the earliest part of the baby’s nervous system, though, appears to be sensory input. Now, the baby, especially early in pregnancy, isn’t much capable of sensory input itself: no muscles to move around! But MOTHER! Ah, the mother’s the primary agent of sensory input. Baby listens to heartbeat and gastro-intestinal movements, much more subtle than our hearing tummies rumbling. He also hears all that mom hears: nature, cars, music, machinery, laughter, conversations both happy and otherwise. He reacts when mom eats something spicy or garlicky, but the tactile and vestibular senses are particularly active and learning – primarily from Mom’s movement.
Picture what a pregnant mom’s lifestyles were like, decades ago when we didn’t have such problems with underdevelopment of the nervous system. Before the (wonderful) mechanization of much of our lives, washing clothes meant rubbing clothing on a washboard, then – if you were lucky – squeezing it between two rollers to get much of the water out, toting it outside, and bending and reaching to pluck each piece from the hamper to pin it to the clothesline. That includes the diapers and wipes, neither of which were disposable. Music in life was much less frequent – perhaps they sang or whistled more? They walked, scrubbed, chopped, climbed, and were generally spending much more time moving. Today’s pregnant moms spend more time sitting at computers and telephones (EMF alert!) and less time banging away at rugs with those wire thingies. We’ve gone from
Now, I LOVE gadgets and gizmos, and I crave almost each and every one of them. But decades ago, moms didn’t have electrified can openers, garage door openers, toothbrushes, or cars with power windows, brakes, and steering. Their kids were largely fine. A baby in utero then experienced a very different life. Not only did my mother type on a manual typewriter, but she also had to do a carriage return!
Another point: the neuronal nets of second-graders who write (print or cursive) are more developed than those who type. The brain is much like muscles: that which gets used, gets stronger. The more technological progress, and affluence we have, decreases how much sensory input we get, and therefore decreases the number and strength of connections in our brain. It’s important during our earliest weeks and months of life – in utero and immediately after birth – that our sensory input be enough, because that’s when our sub-and un-conscious brains are developing.
Pre-term births are also a risk factor, the earlier, the stronger the risk. Babies born at 24-32 weeks gestation have about a 40% chance of having some sort of disability when they are five. Much of the cortex is still maturing in the last 5 weeks of pregnancy. The brain TRIPLES in weight during the last 13 weeks of pregnancy. In addition, we believe that an important part of the vagus nerve that matures breathing and heart rate doesn’t mature until 32 weeks. Does that contribute to SIDS? I don’t know.
And then there’s birth, a very sensual – as in, sense-filled – experience. We were built to experience a vaginal birth, with slowly increasing pressure, and slowly decreasing pressure. The more we deviate from that norm, the less sensory input we’re getting to the baby, sensory input that is helping to signal that Baby is becoming less passive and vulnerable. We believe, for instance, that wedging and squishing oneself down the birth canal helps teach Baby that there are two sides to the body, and helps mature a hypersensitive spinal cord into relying now on the ears to hear, not the cord. A baby being born with the help of Pitocin is getting much of that input, but not all. A baby born by Cesarean, however, gets none. So any alterations in a natural birth are risk factors.
All of these, I note, are risk factors, not causative factors. First, we urgently save the baby’s life, then we address any impacts we’ve given to the nervous system.
Any medications, etc at birth are also not planned for by the body. Neonatal survival rates, thankfully, have skyrocketed with NICU’s lifesaving interventions. Those babies, however, are at an increased risk of interruption to nervous system maturation as well as lung, vision, gut, and other systems. Fortunately, NICUs are now becoming aware of these issues and intervening well, instituting better environments and muting alarms. However, those babies still have missed out on being in utero for those last months, with the unique inputs only a mother’s body can provide They’re at an increased risk of developmental problems, and benefit from having the other side of the equation strengthened with appropriate intervention as soon as they’re able to tolerate that stimulation.