We have long been accustomed to thinking of the unborn baby as being secure and protected in the much-vaunted “safety of the womb”. News flash: There are eddies and undercurrents in that amniotic fluid that exert powerful – and sometimes negative – impacts on the foetus. These include effects on its growing brain, which is highly vulnerable to damage. The outcomes – including mental illness – may make their appearance in babyhood, but far more often during the teen or early adult years.
However, there are steps that prospective parents can take to optimize their baby’s brain health and to cut its risks for future mental illness. Here are six:
Baby-making – Do it sooner rather than later: The age of first-time parents – both, mothers and fathers - is on the rise. But health researchers could make a very strong case for couples to have children earlier rather than later – it could dramatically cut a child’s risks for some of the most serious mental illnesses.
The increased risk for Down’s syndrome in the children of older mums has been known for long. (And, post-40, the older the mother is, the higher the risk). But Down’s Syndrome is not the only mental illness risk faced by children of older mothers. A stack of studies now shows that DNA mutations (a damage, which is known to accumulate in maternal egg cells as women age) can get passed on to their unborn child, setting the stage for dozens of diseases – among them, autism and Alzheimer’s.
Fathers also need to heed the ticking of their biological clocks. Several studies suggest links between paternal age and both, academic performance and mental health. They include a huge Scandinavian study that shocked the medical community because it showed the risks are much higher than previously believed. Children of fathers aged 45 and over were 3.5 times more likely to have autism, and twice as likely to develop psychotic disorders and suicidal behaviour. They had a 13-fold greater risk of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and a 14-fold higher risk for bipolar disorder, compared to children of younger fathers. Also, the risk of many mental disorders rose with the father’s age. The reason is believed to be that, as men get older, their sperm basically degrades.
Eat right – for two: Genes apart, maternal nutrition is perhaps the most influential factor affecting the brain of the foetus. And, of all nutrients, protein appears to be critical. A deficiency of protein is associated with varying degrees of intellectual disturbance such as Attention Deficit disorders and cognitive impairments. However, these consequences may not always show up immediately. Rather, they can remain hidden, or show up only as predispositions – until a time when a person is stressed by unusual circumstances.
Deficiencies of certain micro-nutrients may also have profound effects on the foetal brain. There is unequivocal evidence that severe iodine deficiency in pregnancy impairs brain development in the child. The most serious consequence is cretinism, marked by profound mental retardation.
On the other hand, watch that weight. In recent years, especially in the developed countries, there has been a shift from concerns over maternal malnutrition to maternal obesity. A growing number of studies is showing that women who eat an unhealthy, high-fat diet prior to and during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to children who are at risk for anxiety, learning difficulties and impaired memory during adulthood. Research has also found that a pregnancy menu centred around what has been called the “Western diet” (high-calorie foods; processed foods; sweetened drinks) results in “externalizing behaviours” in the child – behaviours that externalize emotions like aggression.
This research has found that the mother’s obesity significantly alters chemicals in the fetal brain that are responsible for controlling mood and pleasure. All these effects were more noticeable in male offspring.
Substance abuse is a no-no: If you smoke, drink or take illegal drugs during pregnancy, so does your baby. So, you’re not just “eating for two”, but also breathing and drinking for two.
When a woman drinks heavily during pregnancy, the harmful effects on her child's brain development appear to continue over time. They include hyperactivity, attention deficits and learning disabilities. Some research suggests that alcohol use in pregnancy contributes to ADHD.
The risks for ADHD and learning difficulties are also raised in children born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy.
Exposure by the foetus to drugs such as marijuana - also called ganja, dope or pot - has been found to cause behaviour, memory and attentiveness problems in early childhood.
Take care of your own mental health: If necessary, get help for problems such as depression and anxiety. Research shows pregnant women with higher levels of depressive symptoms are more likely to have a diet high in unhealthy foods and low in nutrient-dense foods.
Some stress during pregnancy – as during other times of life – is normal. But chronic stress – the kind that just doesn’t let up – is a different can of worms. While research in this area is still early, the consensus of scientific opinion is that chronic stress in the pregnant mother may contribute to subtle alterations in brain development in the foetus that might lead to behavioural issues as the baby grows up.
Take common-sense precautions against infections: There is mounting evidence that certain mental illnesses in the child are linked to the mother’s exposure to the flu during pregnancy. The risk of bipolar disorder quadruples; that of schizophrenia jumps at least threefold if the flu happens during the first half of pregnancy. Autism has been linked to viral infections in the mother during the first three months of pregnancy.
Researchers believe the likely culprit is not the infection itself, but the mother’s immune response to the infection. The excessive production of inflammatory substances by the immune system could alter the developing foetal brain, disposing the child to mental illness later in life.
Other infections (apart from the flu) have also been found to be associated with similar mental-health outcomes for the child.
Basic precautions for a woman to take during pregnancy include staying away from infected people; enforcing a regimen of regular hand-washing among all family members also helps.
The flu vaccine is available in India, but is not yet the norm. Also, some medical opinion questions the advisability of making this immunization part of the healthcare protocol for pregnant women. The reason is that the flu vaccine will itself set off an immune reaction (though not as robust a response as a flu infection would). And might the resulting production of maternal antibodies not cause the very risks that the mother is trying to avoid by taking the vaccine?
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counselling therapist)