fetal origins


Book Note: Just How Guilty Should a Mother Feel?

It was on the cover of Time Magazine. It was on the cover of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Suddenly, the obscure science of “fetal origins” is getting popular, in the pages of a new book called “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.”

Written by the excellent science writer Annie Murphy Paul (read her brilliant salon.com takedown of the “emotional intelligence” industry), it explores the still-murky but growing research into how the environment in the womb can affect a baby’s life ever after.

Now, not to get overly provincial, but one of my favorite parts of “Origins” is its depiction of a local fetal-origins luminary, Dr. Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School. His team’s “Project Viva” began recruiting pregnant women in 1999, and has been running ever since, seeking the “early-life origins” of health outcomes including asthma, obesity and brain development.

Annie Paul runs through several of their findings: Children of women who get more vitamin D during pregnancy appear less inclined to get asthma. Children of women who eat more low-mercury fish during pregnancy tend to be smarter. Children of women who gain less weight during pregnancy are less likely themselves to be overweight as children.

I asked Dr. Gillman if he had any updates to share since “Origins” went to press. I knew he’d been working of late on rapid weight gain in infancy, which makes a child more likely to become obese later, and exploring whether the hormonal milieu in a mother’s womb might affect it.

He replied: Continue reading