What is Fetal Programming?

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What is fetal pro­gram­ming? Every per­son liv­ing on earth was first exposed to a uter­ine envi­ron­ment that helped deter­mine their life­time health and devel­op­ment. The term for this phe­nom­e­non is fetal pro­gram­ming. It is a hot top­ic and deserves atten­tion.

Accept­ing the impor­tance of fetal pro­gram­ming places respon­si­bil­i­ty on the moth­er-to-be to do all she can to insure her body pro­vides nutri­ents and oxy­gen to her grow­ing infant while avoid­ing pos­si­ble risks and tox­ins. At the same time, genet­ic and envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors con­tribute great­ly to the poten­tial for some dis­or­ders and prob­lems that arise. Thus, we must be care­ful in assign­ing guide­lines for accept­able behav­ior or blame for poor out­comes to preg­nant women.

On the one hand, we can all see the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of some­thing like fetal alco­hol syndrome…clearly the result of mater­nal behav­ior. Is a preg­nant woman whose baby has been dam­aged in this way guilty of abuse?

But, what if a moth­er is obese, eats poor­ly and ends up with an infant with a dis­turbed metab­o­lism. Is this abuse? What if the moth­er has an infec­tion that results in cere­bral pal­sy? Or what if she lives near a high­way and invol­un­tar­i­ly inhales fumes that neg­a­tive­ly affect the pla­cen­ta?

How do you get a healthy baby? Of course, there are no guar­an­tees. There remain many unknown fac­tors that can affect the course and out­come of a preg­nan­cy. Some fac­tors we are aware of, such as avoid­ing cer­tain fumes or chem­i­cals.  There are some behav­iors we know can max­i­mize the poten­tial for a good out­come, such as eat­ing ade­quate pro­tein, aer­o­bic con­di­tion­ing and strength train­ing. [Note for new readers…lots of these fac­tors have been cov­ered in our pre­vi­ous posts.]

But, what about all the things we don’t know about?

If these goats eat the wrong grass, will they go into labor?

Here is a cau­tion­ary tale:  There is a species of goat that, if they eat a cer­tain type of skunk grass on day 14 (and only day 14) of preg­nan­cy, will not go into labor. Why? Plant tox­ins in this grass inter­fere with the devel­op­ment of a small por­tion of fetal brain, the par­aven­tric­u­lar nucle­us. This nucle­us is involved in the sig­nal­ing cycle of labor. With­out it, the moth­er will not go into labor!

What are the take-home mes­sages here?

  • Prob­a­bly no one is ever a per­fect fetus…too many pos­si­ble threats.
  • There are some threats we can avoid…being lazy, over-eat­ing, smok­ing.
  • There are some threats we can­not avoid, so we do the best we can.

Do the best you can by your baby…aerobic fit­ness, good nour­ish­ment, sleep, good hygiene and de-stress­ing your life.

How to Get Pregnant — Coaching Topic #1

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So let’s get on with the top­ic of How to Get Preg­nant, start­ing with why do we need to know this?

In the past few decades, the aver­age age for a first preg­nan­cy in the U.S. has moved from the mid twen­ties into the mid thir­ties. In the same time peri­od, the facts of con­cep­tion — sperm enters egg released in mid cycle, then zygote implants in the uterus, along with how sex allows this to hap­pen and how to pre­vent it — seems to have dis­ap­peared from mid­dle and high school health class­es. If that weren’t enough, as women have become more and more essen­tial in the work force, the cost of hav­ing chil­dren as well as start­ing lat­er, have dri­ven down the birth rate. Sim­i­lar con­di­tions exist in most devel­oped nations, although teen preg­nan­cy rates are low­er every­where else.

The birthing pop­u­la­tion has bifur­cat­ed — we see old­er women (over 35) and teens as the major groups hav­ing chil­dren. On the one hand we have been work­ing to reduce teen preg­nan­cy while help­ing old­er and old­er women become first time moms. To a cer­tain extent, they need the same infor­ma­tion; its just that with teens we use this infor­ma­tion to pre­vent preg­nan­cy and with old­er women we use infor­ma­tion to help them increase their odds of get­ting preg­nant.

Under­stand­ing the men­stru­al cycle, ovu­la­tion, chart­ing tem­per­a­ture — all the basic tech­niques of using the “nat­ur­al” method of birth con­trol — have become the first steps of the how-to-get-preg­nant coach­es. Beyond this, a num­ber of sites have their own essen­tial lists to help women be healthy and ready. Sites such as gettingpregnant.com, pregnancy.org/getting-pregnant, and storknet.com/cubbies/preconception/ pro­vide addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion. Many sug­ges­tions — things to avoid eat­ing, what pro­teins are need­ed for ovu­la­tion, how to reduce stress, what to do if there are sperm prob­lems, how to find IVF clin­ics, donors and sur­ro­gates — are addressed.

How effec­tive are these sug­ges­tions? Well, research tells us they are some­what effec­tive. None of the sites I con­tact­ed answered my query about how they mea­sure or assess con­sumer out­comes when fol­low­ing their sug­ges­tions.

An inter­est­ing arti­cle in the NY Times 9/1/2011, enti­tled Are You as Fer­tile as You Look? openened with this sen­tence: “FORTY may be the new 30, but try telling that to your ovaries.” The real­i­ty is that being under 35 is still the best pre­dic­tor of how dif­fi­cult it may be for you to become preg­nant. As the arti­cle makes clear, look­ing 30 and being 30 are not the same thing. Even healthy liv­ing does not pre­vent the loss of good eggs.

So, what con­clu­sions can we draw? First, even if you come from a “fer­tile fam­i­ly,” it may behoove you to have your chil­dren in your late 20s or ear­ly 30s. Sec­ond, if you are putting off hav­ing chil­dren beyond that time, ask your­self what extremes you are will­ing to go to to have your own bio­log­i­cal off­spring. And, third, con­sid­er adop­tion. Frankly, it would be won­der­ful if adop­tion were eas­i­er, but in the dri­ve to con­ceive at lat­er and lat­er ages we see the hand of biol­o­gy and under­stand why adop­tion is not easy:  Our own off­spring — our own DNA out there in the world — is a heady moti­va­tion.

If you are on the path­way of becom­ing preg­nant, being under 35 is the best ally you have. If not, maybe some of the sug­ges­tions on the web will work for you. What­ev­er you decide, all the best.

One part­ing com­ment:  Reg­u­lar mod­er­ate exer­cise — while it helps you stay young and healthy — will not pre­vent your eggs from being popped out every month. It will help you have a healthy preg­nan­cy if you con­ceive, so stay with it!