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Prenatal Development

Prenatal Environmental Influences

With increasingly sophisticated technology, the fetus has been studied and is considered to be an active agent in its own development. Many scientists believe that anything that affects the environment of the fetus can have an effect upon development beginning at conception and not at birth.

Environment does indeed begin to influence the individual as soon as he or she is conceived. As the zygote undergoes mitosis (cell division), the new cells themselves become part of the mother's environment, and through their particular physical and chemical influence they guide and control the development of further new cells. Different genes are activated or suppressed in each cell, so that while one group of cells is developing into brain tissue, another is giving rise to the heart, another to the lungs, and another to the skeletal system. Meanwhile, the lump of cells is surrounded by the larger environment of the mother's uterus, and this environment is surrounded by the mother and the world in which she lives.

The great majority of women have uncomplicated pregnancies and give birth to healthy babies, and for many years it was believed that the baby in the uterus was completely insulated from outside influences. Scientists now know that this is not entirely true. Environmental influences ranging from radioactivity and stress in the outside world to drugs, chemicals, hormones, and viruses in the mother's bloodstream can affect prenatal development.

Such threats affect the health of the fetus in several ways. This is because the body organs and parts develop at different speeds and go through definite phases. First they go through a phase of rapid multiplication in the number of cells. Then there is an increase in both the number of cells and in cell size. In the third and final phase of development, cell size continues to increase rapidly, but cell division slows down.

When a body part or organ system is growing most rapidly both in cell number and size, this is known as a critical period. If an environmental factor, such as a chemical or virus, interferes with growth during the critical period, development of that organ system will be permanently affected.

The effect of environmental influences varies, therefore, in accordance with the stage of prenatal development in which the environmental factor is encountered, as well as the intensity of the threat, as shown in Table 1.

During the first three months of pregnancy, tissues and important body systems develop in the embryo. Adverse influences during this period will affect the basic structure and form of the body and may have particularly serious effects on the nervous system. Physical development can be arrested and irreparable malformation may occur. For example, many women who took the once-available drug Thalidomide during the first three months of pregnancy gave birth to children with serious defects. When taken toward the end of pregnancy, however, the drug did not seem to have any negative effects.


The scientific study of congenital abnormalities caused by prenatal environmental influences is known as teratology (from the Greek word teras, meaning "marvel" or "monster"), and the environmental agents that produce abnormalities in the developing fetus are called teratogens.


Chemicals (over-the-counter and prescribed pharmaceuticals as well as illegal substances) can cause a wide range of congenital abnormalities that account for about 10 percent of birth defects. The severity of the abnormality depends on the amount of the chemical the mother is exposed to, the developmental stage of the fetus, and the period of time over which the mother's exposure to the chemical takes place.

In terms of narcotics, women who are addicted to heroin, morphine, or methadone give birth to addicted babies. Soon after birth, the babies show symptoms of withdrawal, including tremors, convulsions, difficulty breathing, and intestinal disturbances.

Smoking and Nicotine

Cigarette smoking has already been shown to have dire consequences for the smoker, and it can be hazardous for the fetus and the newborn child. The results of studies of thousands of pregnancies in the United States and elsewhere, encompassing various ethnic, racial, and cultural groupings, indicate that the fetus and newborn are significantly affected by cigarette smoking during pregnancy.

Maternal smoking increases the risk of spontaneous abortions, bleeding during pregnancy, premature rupture of the amniotic sac, and fetal deaths and deaths of newborns. Women who smoke during pregnancy give birth to babies who are about one-half pound (225 grams) lighter (on the average) and smaller in all dimensions (for example, length and head circumference) than babies of nonsmokers, are born prematurely, and have other health problems.


The effects of alcohol are almost undisputed. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), identified in 1973, is perhaps one of the best known and best documented outcomes of drinking, affecting approximately one out of every 750 births. And it is not just the heavy drinker who may place her fetus in danger. It has been found that women having one or more drinks daily were three times more likely to miscarry than women who had less than one drink daily.

FAS is a pattern of malformations in which the most serious effect is mental retardation. Other possible complications include permanent growth retardation, malformations of the face, brain damage, hyperactivity and learning disabilities, and heart defects.

Even if a child does not suffer from FAS, the effects of alcohol consumption can be significant. Although these children do not manifest the characteristics discussed above, they are at high risk for such problems of children of alcoholics as hyperactivity and learning disabilities. Results of research also indicate that moderate drinking can affect the later development of a child's intelligence as measured by IQ scores at age four.

The Mother

Since the mother's body is the chief element in the fetus' environment, the mother's physical condition can significantly affect the baby's development.

Among the maternal factors known to influence the fetus are disease, age, diet, reactions associated with a certain blood component, and prolonged stress.

Even a mother's knowledge of what is taking place in her body can be important. Some research has shown that mothers who consumed potentially teratogenic drugs during pregnancy had very little information about these drugs and even less information about their effect during pregnancy.


Since the placenta cannot filter out extremely small disease carriers, such as viruses, children can be born with malaria, measles, chicken pox, mumps, syphilis, or other venereal diseases that have been transmitted from the mother.

Rubella is the most widespread of the viruses that have a teratogenic effect. If a pregnant woman contracts rubella in the first three months of pregnancy, she is likely to give birth to a child with a congenital abnormality such as heart disease, cataracts, deafness, or mental retardation. Interestingly, there is not a direct relationship between the severity of the disease in the mother and its effect on the fetus. For example, women who have had mild attacks of rubella have given birth to babies with severe abnormalities.

Although rubella might be the most widespread disease, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is by far the most frightening and the one that has received the most publicity. The vast majority of children with AIDS contracted the disease sometime between early pregnancy and birth. The disease is usually transmitted from the mother through the uterus during pregnancy or is acquired by the off-spring at birth.

As of the early twenty-first century, there was not a cure for AIDS, and the majority of efforts at controlling the disease focused on education in an effort to get potential female AIDS victims to take the proper precautions and avoid sexual relationships with high-risk males, usually those involved with drugs. Significant progress was being made, especially concerning children.

Toxemia is a frightening condition that is potentially fatal for the mother and the fetus. It is characterized by high blood pressure, swelling, and weight gain due to a buildup of fluid in the body tissues, and the presence of protein in the mother's urine. In severe cases the woman may go into convulsions or coma, placing a tremendous strain on her, which is carried over to the fetus. Women with toxemia frequently give birth to premature babies or to babies smaller than average for their gestational age. Like many other types of blood-pressure disorders, however, toxemia can be treated through medication and diet.

Anoxia is a condition in which the brain of the baby does not receive enough oxygen to allow it to develop properly. Anoxia can cause certain forms of epilepsy, mental deficiency, cerebral palsy, and behavior disorders. If the amount of brain damage is not too severe, however, it may be possible to compensate for the disorder to some extent. Epilepsy can often be controlled with drugs, for instance, and many children with cerebral palsy can learn to control their affected muscles.


Teenage mothers and those over thirty-five years of age have a higher risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and some birth defects than mothers in the prime childbearing years. Some of the reasons are fairly obvious. Very young mothers have not yet completed their own development, and the reproductive system may not be quite ready to function smoothly or effectively. In older women the reproductive system may be past its most efficient functioning.

In both cases, pregnancy puts an extra strain on a body that is not fully able to bear it. Furthermore, there is some reason to think that a woman's ova may deteriorate with age, leading to a greater risk of birth defects. Women have all their ova in partly developed form when they are born. So a woman who becomes pregnant at age thirty-seven, for example, is "using" an ovum that has been more or less exposed to thirty-seven years' worth of harmful chemicals, radiation, virus infections, and whatever else has happened to her body. This may explain why, for instance, Down syndrome is most common in children born to mothers over forty years of age.

It is quite possible that men's sperm may also be susceptible to chemicals and radiation effects over time. Furthermore, there may be genetic disorders that cause changes in sperm structure.

Diet and Physical Condition

Just as other aspects of physical health are important, so is the mother's diet. While physicians and researchers have long realized that pregnancy puts additional demands on the mother's body, they used to assume that the fetus' nutritional needs would be met first, even at the mother's expense.

The current opinion, however, is that the prenatal development of the fetus and its growth and development after birth are directly related to maternal diet. Women who follow nutritionally sound diets during pregnancy give birth to babies of normal or above-normal size. Their babies are less likely to contract bronchitis, pneumonia, or colds during early infancy and have better developed teeth and bones. The mothers have fewer complications during pregnancy and, on the average, spend less time in labor. The less time in labor, the easier the birth and the less stress the mother and child experience.

But if the mother's diet is low in certain vitamins and minerals when she is pregnant, the child may suffer from specific weaknesses. Insufficient iron may lead to anemia in the infant, and a low intake of calcium may cause poor bone formation. If there is an insufficient amount of protein in the mother's diet, the baby may be smaller than average and may suffer from mental retardation, with almost 20 percent fewer brain cells. Mothers who are also physically small (under 100 pounds [45 kilograms] in total body weight) are risky for pregnancy as well because of the stress that pregnancy can place on them.

The Rh Factor

The Rh-positive factor is an inherited genetically dominant trait in the blood that can result in a dangerous situation for the fetus. When blood containing the Rh factor (that is, Rh-positive blood) is introduced into blood without the Rh factor (Rh-negative blood), antibodies to combat the Rh factor are produced. If an Rh-negative woman mates with an Rh-positive man, the resulting child may have Rh-positive blood. Any small rupture in the capillaries of the placenta will release the Rh factor into the mother's bloodstream, causing her body to produce the antibodies needed to fight it. The antibodies in the mother's blood will then cross the placenta into the fetal bloodstream and attack its Rh-positive red blood cells, depriving the fetus of oxygen. The result may be a miscarriage, possible brain defects, or even death to the fetus or newborn child. Only in circumstances involving an Rh-negative mother and an Rh-positive child does this danger exist.

This condition in the child is called fetal erythroblastosis. Firstborn children are not threatened, because the mother's blood has not had time to produce a large amount of antibodies, but the risk increases with each pregnancy. In the past, erythroblastosis was always fatal, but now medical techniques can minimize the harmful effects of Rh incompatibility. After the birth of an Rh-positive child, the Rh-negative mother can be given an injection of the drug Rhogam to reduce the buildup of antibodies in her blood. If this is not done, future Rh-positive children will be endangered by the high antibody level. A doctor who suspects an Rh incompatibility between mother and fetus can measure her antibody level and induce labor if the antibody count becomes too high. Immediate and complete blood transfusions to the newborn infant can then eliminate the mother's antibodies from its blood. If the fetus is not yet mature enough to survive after birth, a blood transfusion may be possible in utero.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 6Prenatal Development - Ovum Or Germinal Stage, Embryo Stage, Fetal Stage, Prenatal Environmental Influences, Stress, Exercise - Conclusion