Parents' Lifestyle Affects Children

Parents' Lifestyle Affects Children

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

In previous articles, I have discussed the possible effects of the mother's emotional state on the baby in the womb. Maternal depression, anxiety or post-traumatic disorder can have lasting negative effects on the emotional and physical health of the baby.

Other articles of mine have discussed the negative effects of substance abuse on the unborn baby. Identification of "fetal alcohol syndrome" and "cocaine babies" is an undeniable evidence of devastating physical and mental consequences of chemicals ingested during pregnancy.

Thanks to advancements in imaging technology, we know much more about the physical, emotional and mental development of the baby in the womb. What was once invisible is now visible. For example, we now know that babies smile, frown and do thumb sucking during the last three months of the pregnancy. Emotional patterns and behavioral and health habits are formed before babies see the light of day. Their bodies remember even their minds may not. Scientists are learning a lot about how diseases seen in adulthood may have their origin in the womb.

The uterus does not provide a total shelter and shield for its "guest." Of course, the uterus protects the baby from many external hazards and dangers but it cannot totally shield the baby from the behaviors of its "host." Let me use the analogy of a houseguest. A houseguest may remain totally unaware and unaffected by low-grade tension between the host couple but if the couple starts yelling and screaming and hitting each other, even a nonchalant guest will likely experience a racing heart and shortness of breath.

Continuing with the analogy, the guest often has to adapt to the peculiar habits of the hosts. If the hosts eat late or party late at night, the guest not accustomed to such ways of life must learn to adapt to these conditions. Now imagine that your houseguest is "nosy," constantly snooping on you and gathering cues to prepare himself or herself in advance for what is yet to come.

The baby growing inside the womb gathers clues about the outside world in order to be better prepared for the world into which he or she will enter. Say the expectant mother goes on a diet or eats poorly. As a result the baby inside the womb receives a limited supply of nutrients. It begins to prepare for an outside world which it expects to be deficient in nutrients. As result, the baby learns to use available nutrients sparingly. It would be a lesson likely to be remembered for the rest of the person's life!

When the baby enters the outside world, its body remembers to conserve fat as if the world is experiencing a drought and one's survival depends on conservation. It can work fine if the baby is born in some poor country where drought and starvation are realities.

Guess what? Unfortunately, the baby is born in America where fat foods are the cheapest and virtually everyone can afford them. Everybody is getting more of it and paying less. What we have, then, is a mismatch in which the metabolism is geared for starvation but the feast never stops. This can pose a lifelong risk for obesity.

The baby in the womb is constantly at work. Its work is to grow and prepare for the outside world. Its information about the outside world is based on the internal environment of the womb. We often misinterpret such preparation and adaptation by the unborn baby as "genetic influence." Bear in mind that what sometimes appears genetic may be an unconsciously learned behavior.

Take for example an obese mother who develops gestational diabetes. She may transfer excess sugar to the baby in the womb. The body of the baby increases the number of fat cells to accommodate the excess supply. The baby may learn to increase its level of insulin, which moves sugar form the blood to the tissues. The brain of the baby accommodates to excess sugar by strengthening the appetite pathways and hormones. Is it genes or learned behavior? Some scientists view it as an adaptation to the environment an unborn baby expects to find out there.

As yet another example, maternal stress can lead to inflammation of the placenta, which can affect brain development in the womb. In fact, many types of deficiencies or disorders can develop as a result of placental inflammation.

The brain is the king of the body. The brain gets the "lion's share" of the food and nutrients available. The body may attempt to protect the brain. It may increase blood flow to the brain by diverting it away from other internal organ such as the heart or kidneys.

Do not take this to mean that there is little you can do about such health conditions as obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes because your fate was sealed even before you were born. There is plenty of room for improvement. You, as an, adult can change behaviors that contribute to your health problems. Likewise, parents can change their own behaviors towards children that contribute to poor health. You can also change your child's behavior, now.

The research in this area is still inconclusive. But, it's plain common sense that relaxation, stress management, adequate nutrition and a positive emotional climate at home during and after pregnancy are good medicine for this generation and the next.

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Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted October 2003


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