What babies learn in the womb

By Paul Stark

Annie Murphy Paul

At CNN.com, Annie Murphy Paul, author of “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives,” writes:

Starting a few years ago, I began noticing a dazzling array of findings clustered around the prenatal period. These discoveries were generating considerable excitement among scientists, even as they overturned settled beliefs about when we start absorbing and responding to information from our environment. As a science reporter — and as a mother — I had to find out more. This research, I discovered, is part of a burgeoning field known as “fetal origins,” and it’s turning pregnancy into something it has never been before: a scientific frontier. Obstetrics was once a sleepy medical specialty, and research on pregnancy a scientific backwater. Now the nine months of gestation are the focus of intense interest and excitement, the subject of an exploding number of journal articles, books, and conferences. 

What it all adds up to is this: much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life — the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she’s exposed to, even the emotions she feels — are shared in some fashion with her fetus. They make up a mix of influences as individual and idiosyncratic as the woman herself. The fetus treats these maternal contributions as information, as what I like to call biological postcards from the world outside.

By attending to such messages, the fetus learns the answers to questions critical to its survival: Will it be born into a world of abundance, or scarcity? Will it be safe and protected, or will it face constant dangers and threats? Will it live a long, fruitful life, or a short, harried one?

The pregnant woman’s diet and stress level, in particular, provide important clues to prevailing conditions, a finger lifted to the wind. The resulting tuning and tweaking of the fetus’s brain and other organs are part of what give humans their enormous flexibility, their ability to thrive in environments as varied as the snow-swept tundra in Siberia and the golden-grassed savanna in Africa.

The recognition that learning actually begins before birth leads us to a striking new conception of the fetus, the pregnant woman and the relationship between them.

The fetus, we now know, is not an inert blob, but an active and dynamic creature, responding and adapting as it readies itself for life in the particular world it will soon enter. The pregnant woman is neither a passive incubator nor a source of always-imminent harm to her fetus, but a powerful and often positive influence on her child even before it’s born. And pregnancy is not a nine-month wait for the big event of birth, but a crucial period unto itself — “a staging period for well-being and disease in later life,” as one scientist puts it.

[The reminder can be read at www.cnn.com/2011/12/11/opinion/paul-ted-talk/index.html]

Editor’s note. Paul Stark is Communications Associate for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, National Right to Life’s state affiliate. This first appeared at http://prolifemn.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-babies-learn-in-womb.html