Begin Before Birth; Reproductive Researchers Reach Wide Audiences with New Interactive Website

September 28th, 2012 by avatar

By: Walker Karraa, MFA, MA

Today’s post is by regular S&S contributor Walker Karraa who shares a resource that is geared for both providers and expectant families alike, how fetal development is influenced by the environment that babies grow in utero. SM

Researchers from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London have produced a multi-disciplinary, multi-media website dedicated to educating women, partners, care providers and students about the impact of environment on fetal development. Professor Vivette Glover, Professor of Perinatal Psychobiology leads the research team who developed this site.

We have known for a long time that how we turn out depends on both our genes and our environment. What we now realize is that the influence of the environment begins in the womb, and how the mother feels during pregnancy can change this environment and can have a lasting effect on the development of her child. 

The site is beautifully designed and one of the best I have seen in terms of content, links, videos and resources. It is extremely easy to use, well-constructed, and visually stimulating. What is extraordinary about this site is the accessibility and scope of the content, the crystal clear presentation of facts, and the reach to care providers and mothers alike—in addition to a comprehensive section dedicated to school curriculum, and students of all ages interested in fetal programming, fetal development, and epigenetics.

The reader is first drawn to the Pregnancy section and its three subpages. The Mother’s Wellbeing discusses importance of nutrition, avoiding alcohol and smoking and highlights the importance of a mother’s psychological and emotional wellbeing during pregnancy. The tone is reassuring for mothers and partners, clearly and succinctly written, with links to an educational video What happens in the womb can last a lifetime, a 2:25 minute video illustrating early fetal development that features Professor Vivette Glover, developer of the site, and one of the pre-eminent scholars in the field of perinatal psychiatry and fetal development. Secondly, the What can help page offers artfully presented and clear information for how a woman may assess her mood and stress during pregnancy, and how to approach discussing symptoms with care providers. Links to resource organizations, and online support groups are provided. Finally, Stress in Pregnancy provides definitions of types of stress and the effects of stress shown in research. Again, the verbiage is easy to read, and poses difficult topics in clear yet assuring language. There is information on how stress is measured, and differences between anxiety and depression are discussed along with a description of the body’s response to stress.

The In the Womb section presents accurate educational materials on the mechanisms of fetal programming, and fetal development including a good description of the work by David Barker the Barker hypothesis, and accessible visual aids. The Baby and Child page explains the effect of stress on the baby and child, including risks of long-term developmental and behavioral problems. Father, family & friends page underscores the importance of partner and family support in mitigating stress for a pregnant woman, as well as the need for employers to consider minimizing stress by making workloads lighter and flexible.

As the reader moves down the site, the material becomes more directed to the care provider and student researcher. The Insights from the Past section reviews historical perspectives of the effects of mothers emotional state on fetal development. The Science component of the site breaks down the scientific and theoretical literature within study of evolution, epigenetics, placenta and fetal brain, and evidence from animal-based research. Citations are given throughout, with links. The Implications section provides still a deeper personal and qualitative understanding of the effects of perinatal stress in Charlie’s Story and accompanying video through which a case study of a 19 year old young man whose mother suffered severe perinatal stress is poignantly captured. Policy tools and examples for preconception and early intervention programs include the Nurse Family Partnership and links to the published papers from the NFP.

Mothers, midwives, health care providers, childbirth educators, policy makers and students would benefit tremendously from the information on this site. I look forward to hearing how you may incorporate the multifaceted site in your practice.

Educators and others, is this topic something that you discuss with the pregnant mothers you come in contact with?  Do teach about this topic to families? Might you incorporate resources from this website in your teaching?  Let us know your thoughts. – SM

Walker Karraa, MFA, MA is a doctoral student at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology/Sofia University where she is researching transformational dimensions of postpartum depression. Walker holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University/Seattle, and both MFA and BA degrees in dance from UCLA. Walker is a contributor for Lamaze International’s Science and Sensibility, Giving Birth With Confidence, and the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) Midwives Connection. She is currently working on co-authoring a book on PTSD following childbirth with Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, FAPA, and works as Social Media Manager for Integral Leadership Review. Walker lives in Sherman Oaks, CA with her two children and husband.




Babies, Childbirth Education, Depression, Guest Posts, Healthy Birth Practices, Healthy Care Practices, Infant Attachment, Maternal Mental Health, New Research, Newborns, News about Pregnancy, Parenting an Infant, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression, Research, Uncategorized , , , , , , , , ,

  1. | #1

    Hi Walker – Thanks for introducing me to an easy to understand website on epigenetics. iInteresting information on how stress, poverty, neglect (PTSD/trauma) effect both fetal and infant brain development. The book, Ghosts in the Nursery, and Marty Teicher’s work has alot of good info about what some people call “de-evolution”, the effects of chronic poverty, stress, neglect & malnutrition, etc on cortical brain growth. It is said there are less connections from the lower brain centers up into the cortices, due to negative environmental conditions, so the child grows up with lower impulse control, attentional difficulties. And the adult has alot of difficulties. I think it’s great that the researchers are discovering this info, I do wish there was more information on the other side of the coin…such as resiliency factors..why some people are able to succeed with the deck stacked against them and others are not. I need to explore the site more to see if there is info about this…take care, Kathy

  2. avatar
    | #2

    This stuff is exiting, but very scary at the same time. I would love to see information on how to counter-act a stressful pregnancy. Let’s face it – life is stressful, and getting more so with all the “help” of technology. It would be good to know the type of healing process available to help most children.

  3. | #3

    Interestingly enough, during my Prenatal Yoga teacher training, we talked about the effect our stress levels have on the baby. We discussed that mothers should limit things that will cause stress, including scary movies(!) because that would increase her stress hormones and potentially affect the baby.

    It’s one of the many benefits of prenatal yoga – stress reduction. I wrote about this in Feb http://www.scienceandsensibility.org/?p=4062

    I find epigenetics fascinating. It makes sense.

  4. | #4

    @Kathy Morelli There is a new book published by the authors of “Ghosts in the Nursery” called “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease” which includes info about epigenetics and includes pregnancy and birth; thought you’d like to know.

  5. avatar
    Judy Goldberger, RN
    | #5

    Can we move beyond laying it all on the shoulders of the individual mothers? Some women can’t leave their stressful situations, and I’m afraid this will become one more thing she’ll feel guilty about. For starters, there’s research looking at the shocking birth disparities between women of different races (even when factors such as education and income are controlled) that suggests that the chronic stress of living in a racist culture may play a huge role. For example, there’s a study which showed that the more discrimination a woman experienced, the lower her baby’s average birth weight. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/249507.php

  6. | #6

    To answer Susan’s excellent question about how we can counter-act a stressful pregnancy, I think a great way to counter early stress is to teach mom’s early attachment, or call it prenatal bonding. Secure attachment provides a buffer between baby and the world. Life is not perfect, stress is here, and trauma and loss happen, we have arguments with our spouse, etc, but if you have a secure attachment with your unborn baby, one which includes two-way communication between mom and baby, you can make an enormous difference in how much your baby takes on, how much she is affected by everything, and how much she feels responsible for. Yes, when things are not going well in the family, prenate’s can think it is about them, and mistaken beliefs about themselves and life are laid down. There are many other fantastic benefits to early attachment. We should be teaching children about this as early as infants school so that it becomes a natural part of our culture. Prenate’s are conscious, vulnerable, and sentient, and they are having their own experience.

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