As we start talking about development, we have to begin at the very beginning; in the uterus. There are many environmental conditions that threaten unborn children. There are many dangers that a mother has to avoid during pregnancy and nursing such as drugs, alcohol, and assorted environmental toxins (we should know not to paint a room when a woman is six months pregnant). Studies have found that babies come into this world pre-polluted; about 200 industrial chemicals/pollutants can be found in umbilical cord blood. The total impact of these chemicals on a developing child is at present not totally known; however, we do know that its effects are harmful to a fetus.
There are three stages of prenatal physical development: Germinal, embryonic, and fetal periods. The germinal stage begins with conception and ends with the implantation in the uterus, generally the first two weeks when a woman would not even know that she was pregnant yet.
The second stage, the embryonic period, begins after the uterine implantation and lasts through eight weeks. During this stage, between four and ten weeks, is when an ectopic pregnancy can occur, which is when a fertilized egg implants itself somewhere other than the uterus (generally, it’s in the fallopian tube, which is why this is also called tube or tubal pregnancies; it’s unsurvivable for the baby-to-be). The embryonic stage is also when major organs become well-defined and the head grows at a faster rate than other parts of the body. In sonograms, we see what some people call the ‘alien baby’ because the head is so big, but this is a good thing.
The third and final stage, the fetal period, is from eight weeks to birth; this is the longest stage with rapid weight gain in the fetus and the mother. All the fine detailing of the bodily organs and systems are developed.
Prenatal Development – Prenatal Dangers
The reason we look at these three stages of prenatal physical development is because whenever there is a physical development, there are also the cognitive and emotional psychological developments. What happens to a fetus absolutely impacts all areas of development of that person upon birth. Most of us understand that when you’re pregnant you stay away from smoking and drinking, and you see a doctor regularly. But even after knowing this, people still are unaware about how these nine months will affect the 60, 70, or 80+ years of a life. There are many environmental conditions that endanger the birth of a healthy child and the growth of that child to adulthood.
One condition that is easy to avoid but can have one of the most negative birth issues is malnutrition. If a fetus does not have proper nutrition throughout the prenatal physical development then the baby can be born with an array of issues. These can include a less developed brain, a greater vulnerability to disease, low birth weight, malformations, and intrauterine growth restrictions (IUGR). With all of these comes an increased risk of neurological disorders, including learning disabilities, mental retardation, disruption of the growth of the child, and childhood and adulthood psychiatric disorders. It is also theorized that with prenatal malnutrition, a person is at a higher risk for coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension as an adult. Generally stated for the layman – eat well and enough when you are pregnant so you don’t screw up the entire life of your unborn child, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Some women, especially young, first time mothers, try to not gain a lot of weight during their pregnancy. They do this by basically not eating when they are hungry. I don’t believe in the notion that a pregnant woman is eating for two; however, if you are pregnant, you do need to eat a bit more than if you weren’t pregnant. Those women who don’t want to completely ‘ruin their bodies’ with stretch marks, and who want to make it easier to lose the extra weight after pregnancy, are putting a person’s entire life in danger. Understand, that this vanity can cause a person to be born with lifelong issues, just because you didn’t want to get fat. When I teach about parenting, it starts at conception; it is at conception that you become a parent and when you spend more time taking care of your child’s needs rather than your wants. Ok, off my soapbox for a while.
Along with malnutrition, another danger that can be managed by just a bit of effort and common sense is stress. We know how stress can impact our daily lives as adults, imagine what it can do to a developing baby in the belly. Stress exposure will vary from person to person since we are all not the same and we all handle stress differently. For example, I have no real issues driving in traffic; gives me time to myself and I get to listen to my music as loud as I want. However, traffic tends to be very stressful for other people, especially for those who live in large cities like I do (LA freeways can give me A LOT of time to myself). Stress occurs when we have, or are in, very demanding conditions and will strain us emotionally or mentally. This strain causes pressure on a developing fetus, which can turn into a child with an assortment of problems.
There are many studies that have been done in regard to stress on a fetus. And when I say many, I mean since ancient times when philosophers talked about keeping a woman calm and happy when she is pregnant. We studied (and continue to study) both human and animal gestation periods and the effect of stress and anxiety on a fetus. It has been noted that there can be immediate, short-term, and long-term issues with the offspring who are exposed to continual, stressful conditions while in the uterus. You can have low birth weight, higher chance of premature birth (which has a whole other set of issues), and an increase of a miscarriage. An infant can be irritable and temperamental, with higher levels of fussiness, feeding difficulties, and colic, along with attention regulations or problems with attention all together.
There have also been large scale studies that show an association between maternal stress and more long-term problems as the child gets older, such as hyperactivity, emotional problems, behavioral issues, and conduct regulation problems. Yes, all of these problems can stem from a mom-to-be who surrounded herself with stress and anxiety, or, rather, did not have the right (or better) coping skills for these environments and conditions (like, you still have to see the in-laws, or you still have to deal with people always wanting to touch your stomach).
When we get a disease, our bodies are taxed beyond what it can handle on its own. Getting a disease when you are pregnant can be fatal to an unborn child. Let’s talk about diseases. I mean, we are immunized (most of us, anyways) when we are children, or we are exposed to certain diseases so that we don’t get them as adults, like chicken pox or the measles. Some people, however, still get these diseases, and even though we have cures for many of them, the cure could be fatal for the fetus as well. But let’s talk more about those moms-to-be who do not take everything they are told to NOT do seriously, such as changing a cat’s litter box. Big no-no. A disease called toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite found in cat’s poop. It’s the most common parasitic disease and pregnant women are diagnosed with it all the time; any given year, thousands of babies are born with this infection. Other infections and diseases that can be protected against are sexually transmitted diseases. Unfortunately, many pregnant women can still be sexually reckless, infecting not just their body but that of their child.
These and other diseases can have horrible effects on a child. This includes stillbirth, blindness, deafness, mental retardation, heart malformations, brain infection, premature birth, and low birth weight. They can also cause structural and neurological, long-term damages. What’s more disheartening is that it just takes a little bit of care to protect yourself against some of these diseases, anyways, if not all of them.
Legal and Illegal Drugs
When a woman suspects that she is pregnant, she pees on a stick and then is either elated or disappointed about the pregnancy. She goes to the doctor, finds she really is pregnant, and then her, her partner, her friends and family, and her co-workers, all take this pregnancy into consideration whenever the pregnant woman is around. Right? People stop smoking in front of her, we keep alcohol away from her, and we cautiously warn her when she wants to wear her stiletto heels while her center of gravity is ever changing. Legal and illegal drugs are still used by pregnant women, especially smoking and drinking. Some women smoke because there’s the belief that they won’t gain as much weight (oh, the vanity), and they will have ‘just one glass’ every weekend.
Here’s what can happen when a pregnant woman uses drugs while pregnant: the child could have hearing problems or loss, low birth weight, an inhibition of bone growth, mental retardation, attention deficits in childhood, and death. A child can be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) which has its own set of problems. FASDs are caused by a mother who drank alcohol while pregnant (some suggest that these effects also occur with the use of some legal, recreational, and illegal drugs). A child born with an FASD can have one or more of the following:
- Low birth rate with small head size and shorter than average
- Abnormal facial features
- Hyperactivity with attention difficulties
- Memory, vision, and/or hearing problems
- Bad coordination/clumsy
- Difficulty in deduction, reasoning, and judgment (math skills)
- Sleep problems
- Low intelligence with learning disabilities
- Delay in speech, language, and movement
- Childhood problems with kidneys and the heart
- Inhibition of bone growth/brittle bones
There are so many ways to prevent all of the prenatal dangers if a pregnant woman wants to have the best chance of giving birth to a healthy child. Take the necessary precautions, listen to your body, and, most importantly, listen and do what your doctor tells you to.