Feature

Book of the week: Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul

While pregnant with her second child, Paul investigated the scientific literature to find out what researchers are discovering about the link between lifestyle and fetal development.

(Free Press, 306 pages, $26)

Any woman who’s ever brought a child into this world might find the title of Annie Murphy Paul’s new book “seriously off-putting,” said Helen Jung in the Portland Oregonian. Our kids already blame us for all their problems; now science is saying that our parenting mistakes counted even in the womb? Fortunately, Paul isn’t out to heap guilt on mothers, but to shed light on an emerging field that has the potential to help coming generations enjoy happier, healthier lives. Only recently have researchers begun to extensively study how the lifestyle of a pregnant woman might affect her offspring’s intellectual development, “emotional well-being,” and long-term susceptibility to various diseases.

Paul actually wrote the book while pregnant with her second child, said Laura Landro in The Wall Street Journal. The level-headed science journalist plunged into existing “fetal origins” research and discovered that science rarely could conclusively resolve her own worries about diet, work pressures, or exposure to common chemicals. Researchers she consulted were confident that heavy drinking during pregnancy is bad for the fetus, for instance, but they thought that light drinking might perhaps actually reduce the child’s risk of hyperactivity or emotional problems. They could confidently assert that it is not good for mothers-to-be to live in cities that are being air-bombed on a daily basis, but allowed that “moderate stress levels may actually be good for the fetus, accelerating its maturation.” Anyone looking to Origins for definitive answers about what’s safe and what’s not “will be disappointed, because there aren’t many.”

Paul does the reader a service by admitting as much, said Jerome Groopman in The New York Times. Avoiding the hysteria that so often attends media coverage of such findings, she “consistently hews a middle ground between dismissive skepticism and blind acceptance of research results.” Even so, her discoveries add up to “an oddly positive story” about the real relationship between mother and fetus, said Ceridwen Morris in Babble.com. Mothers shouldn’t imagine that only their mistakes matter to in utero development. “Gestation, it turns out, is a time when vital information is passed from mother to fetus” about the world outside, including what it feels like to experience both pleasures and pain.

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