Epigenetics: Baby Learns about Life from Womb
Babies learn about the world they will live in from their time in utero. That means that they expect the world to be similar to their experience gestating.
A new study shows that women who were stressed during pregnancy have babies with oxytocin receptor genes that are more easily turned on.
Babies’ genetic programming is done in part from their experience in the womb. The chemicals and hormones in your body during pregnancy teach and train and change your baby’s body. This is called epigenetics.
So your baby is made up of genetic information from each biological parent, but which genes are turned on depends on the environment (both internal and external).
This new study about oxytocin receptor genes and prenatal stress is an example of how formative womb-time is. Stress in pregnancy actually causes genes to change in the unborn child.
Benefits of Stress?
The authors of the study suggest that it might be protective, that the babies of stressed mothers may be better able to cope with stress. Great news for women who are stressed while pregnant, right?
Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Imagine your genes are like beers on tap.
Just because the tap for oxytocin is easier to pull doesn’t mean that you will therefore have less stress and more bonding. There are other hormones on tap. Babies born to stressed mothers might have taps for adrenaline and cortisol that are just plain leaky. (Does that happen? I don’t drink beer…)
Anyway, I can see a protective mechanism for babies of stressed mothers as follows: The oxytocin tap is easier to turn on because the capacity for oxytocin production is lower (from stress). Newborn babies need to bond with their mothers so the body tries to ensure that happens by making oxytocin easier to turn on. A little skin-to-skin, a little boob and BAM! Bonded. Even a little bit will let these babies bond to their harried mothers. It doesn’t mean they will experience less stress.
Or maybe it does. If you experience high levels of stress in utero, you expect life to be stressful. Your body is ready for stress. If your life is stressful, you will probably be a relatively happy person anyway because you expected that.
If your life is not stressful, you might be plagued with anxiety because…Hey! Where’s the danger!? …Oh that must be it. And that! And Oh My Gosh look at that…Certainly something is coming.
Your hormones aren’t the only thing changed by your experience in utero.
Your baby is what you eat. And what you feel.
We’ve known for awhile that what you eat when you are pregnant will help your baby develop her food preferences and expectations in life. Women who eat fish in pregnancy have babies who like the taste of fish. Women who are starved during pregnancy have babies who expect to get little to eat.
One famous case of this is the Dutch Hunger Winter when Nazis blockaded shipments of food into part of the Netherlands. About 4.5 million people were affected and maybe 20,000 people died. There were, of course, pregnant women. Their babies experienced famine in utero. When they were born, the war had ended, and they got feast. So the babies who were born expecting famine grew up with an enormous increase in risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Just normal amounts of food caused their bodies to fall into disease because epigenetically, they expected and were prepared for famine.
So I am still going to encourage pregnant women to relax, to feel good, love and enjoy their pregnancies. Whatever possible advantage maternal stress can lend to the baby developing inside her, it’s not worth the risks. Or the stress.
Image credits: Terence Nance via Flickr/CC; Catarina Oberlander via Flickr/CC