Annie Murphy Paul: A Writer Explores Fetal Origins

Annie Murphy Paul says her immersion in fetal origins research made her less anxious about being pregnant. i i

Annie Murphy Paul says her immersion in fetal origins research made her less anxious about being pregnant. Ali Price/Courtesy of Free Press hide caption

itoggle caption Ali Price/Courtesy of Free Press
Annie Murphy Paul says her immersion in fetal origins research made her less anxious about being pregnant.

Annie Murphy Paul says her immersion in fetal origins research made her less anxious about being pregnant.

Ali Price/Courtesy of Free Press

By now, I know the look. It's an expression that mingles curiosity, hope and apprehension. It's worn by the women who approach me at book signings and speaking events, even while shopping at the supermarket. They want to know: What should I do when I'm pregnant? Or: Now that I've already had my kids, what did I do wrong?

I understand their interest and their worry. There's an emerging body of research demonstrating that our health and well-being are influenced by our time in the womb. Scientists are studying the fetal origins of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and investigating new possibilities for preventing them before birth.

So, eat fish, I tell the women who want to know more, but make sure it's the low-mercury kind. The omega-3 fatty acids in seafood are associated with higher verbal intelligence and better social skills in school-age children. Exercise, I say. Research suggests that fetuses benefit from their mothers' physical activity.

Protect yourself from toxins and pollutants, which are linked to birth defects and lowered IQ.

Don't worry too much about stress, I reassure them. Research shows that moderate stress during pregnancy is associated with accelerated infant brain development.

But seek help if you think you might be suffering from depression. The babies of depressed women are more likely to be born early and at low birth weight. They may be more irritable and have more trouble sleeping.

And, I add, eat chocolate. It's associated with a lower risk of the high blood pressure condition known as preeclampsia.

If I had more time — if we weren't standing in the aisle of the supermarket, other shoppers elbowing past — I'd tell them that my immersion in fetal origins research made me less anxious about being pregnant, not more. It made me see pregnancy in a new light: as a scientific frontier, and an opportunity to improve the health and well-being of the next generation. Pregnancy isn't just a nine-month wait for birth, but a crucial period unto itself: a staging ground for the rest of life.

Before we part, I tell them one thing more: that being pregnant is a lot like raising a child. All we can do is try our best, but we have to wait to see how it turns out.

Excerpt: Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape The Rest Of Our Lives

Origins
Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives
By Annie Murphy Paul
Hardcover, 320 pages
Free Press
List Price: $26

When I'm not busy caring for my young children, I work as a science writer for newspapers and magazines. My job is to trawl the murky depths of the academic journals, looking for something shiny and new — a sparkling idea that catches my eye in the gloom. Starting a few years ago, I began noticing a dazzling array of findings clustered around the prenatal period. These discoveries were generating considerable enthusiasm among scientists, even as they overturned settled beliefs and assumptions about when and how human qualities emerge — our health, our intelligence, our temperaments. This research, I learned, is part of a burgeoning field known as "fetal origins," and its message is worlds away from the warnings and reprimands found in popular books and articles about pregnancy.

Here there was a palpable sense of excitement, of horizons opening wide instead of clamping down tight. Here there was a necessary acknowledgment that things can go wrong during gestation — but also a dawning sense that intrauterine conditions make a lot of things go right, that the prenatal period is where many of the springs of health and strength and well-being are found. And here there was a recognition that there is no generically ideal pregnancy to aspire to (and, inevitably, to fall short of): there is instead a highly personal and particular shaping of the fetus for the specific world into which it will be welcomed.

For me, this development had special significance: as I began my investigation of the science of fetal origins, I learned that I was pregnant for a second time. During my first pregnancy, I had nothing but questions. This time, I was determined to find some answers. Just how is the fetus shaped by a woman's behavior during pregnancy? How is it affected by her diet, her stress level, her emotional state, her exposure to chemicals? How can she minimize harm and maximize benefit? And what does the emerging science of fetal origins mean for us as individuals, as parents, and as members of society? In my effort to learn more, I used all the tools at my disposal as a science writer — delving into the research literature, interviewing scientists, observing them at work.

But science can't tell us everything we need to know about this new perspective; there's always a gap where the hard evidence of the laboratory meets the soft flesh of our bodies. So I also embarked on this exploration as a pregnant woman, someone who was living what she was learning about. I brought back discoveries from the cutting edge of fetal origins research and applied them in my own life; I became my own natural experiment.

Lastly, I examined the new notions of pregnancy as a student of culture and history, a denizen of both the sidewalk and the library. In this I was following the lead of the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who in 1802 immersed himself in a book by physician Thomas Browne. "Surely we are all out of the computation of our age, and every man is some months elder than he bethinks him," Browne wrote, "for we live, move, have a being and are subject to the actions of the elements, and malice of diseases, in that other world, the truest microcosm, the womb of our mother."

So struck was Coleridge by this passage that he added his own enthusiastic note in the margin. "Yes! The history of man for the nine months preceding his birth would probably be far more interesting and contain events of greater moment, than all the three score and ten years that follow it," he scribbled. Coleridge's centuries-old speculation, I saw, was finally being put to the test; the "history of man for the nine months preceding his birth" was at long last being written, and one small strand of it was being inscribed in me.

There was a moment during the reporting for Origins that summed up the entire project for me. I was sitting in the laboratory of Dr. Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University and one of the pioneers of the science of fetal origins. DiPietro hooked up her experimental subject — a woman eight months pregnant — to a monitoring device, and the sound of a fetal heart filled the room: a fast, regular beat beneath an aquatic gurgle, like a horse cantering underwater. I noticed DiPietro looking at me.

"Is your baby moving around?" she asked. I realized that I'd put a hand to my belly.

"Yes, he is," I said, surprised.

"He's probably reacting to the sound of the heartbeat," she said. She chuckled: "It's fetus-to-fetus communication."

It was not the only time my roles as a science writer and a pregnant woman came together. Over nine months of research, the two took turns at the helm of my quest to understand the science of fetal origins; after a while it was impossible to keep them separate, as I let my belly lead the way into labs, or felt my fetus kick, as if for emphasis, during interviews, or balanced my laptop on my knees while I reached around my ever-expanding middle to type.

My pregnancy changed the way scientists related to me, too. During interviews, they would gesture at my belly to make a point, or would use the word "you" instead of "the pregnant woman." Catching sight of me at professional meetings, they often looked momentarily stunned, as if a whale had shown up at a conference of marine biologists. At those same meetings, held in gray hotel conference rooms under fluorescent lights, my eyes were probably the only ones to prick with tears when ultrasound images of fetuses or recorded wails of newborns punctuated the presentation of research findings. What was professional became personal for me, as well as the other way around; I realized that the two are inseparable, just as the science of pregnancy is inseparable from its history and culture.

During my exploration of the field of fetal origins, I read thousands of articles in academic journals and listened to dozens of scientific briefings. But my understanding of pregnancy and its profound importance led me back to the heart.

Excerpted from Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul. Copyright 2010 by Annie Murphy Paul. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.

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