Chinese culture regards a new-born baby as a year old. Now, a burgeoning field in biology called “fetal origins” is lending science to that cultural tradition.
Writing in Time magazine, Sept. 22, 2010, Annie Murphy Paul reports that practitioners in the new field of “fetal origins” assert that the nine months in mommy’s womb are the most consequential period of our lives, permanently influencing the wiring of the brain and the functioning of organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas. The conditions we encounter in utero shape our susceptibility to disease, our appetite and metabolism, our intelligence and temperament. The literature on the subject, which has exploded over the past 10 years, includes the fetal origins of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, mental illness — even of conditions associated with old age like arthritis, osteoporosis and cognitive decline.
But how is the baby shaped and influenced? Paul writes:
“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 — is shared in some fashion with her fetus. The fetus incorporates these offerings into its own body, makes them part of its flesh and blood…it treats these maternal contributions as information, biological postcards from the world outside.”
In other words, the baby in the womb is learning.
Writing for CNN a year later, on Dec. 11, 2011, Annie Paul is now explicit about what transpires in the womb:
“learning starts much earlier than many of us would have imagined: in the womb.”
As an example, the baby in the womb of an obese woman processes fats and carbohydrates in a less-than-healthy way, and so the child is prone to be obese. But children conceived after their mothers had weight-loss surgery process fats and carbohydrates in a healthier way and so are less prone toward obesity. In other words, babies born to non-obese mothers have normal metabolisms — metabolisms that were made normal by their prenatal experience, perhaps through a process known as epigenetic modification, in which environmental influences affect the behavior of genes without altering DNA.
“Fetal origins” scientists maintain that the intrauterine environment may be even more important than genes or shared eating habits in passing on a propensity for physical diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, as well as mental illnesses. Schizophrenia, in particular, seems to be related to mothers who experienced starvation and great emotional stress while pregnant.
“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.”
Indeed, we are told that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart….” -Jeremiah 1:5