Health

Pregnancy advice 'scaremongering'

  • 3 January 2013
  • From the section Health
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Pregnant woman

Pregnancy is a huge, life-changing period in a woman's life and there is no shortage of advice about what is best for your unborn child. But in this week's Scrubbing Up, Linda Geddes, the author of Bumpology, argues this can sometimes be misleading and scaremongering.

Expectant parents are bombarded with advice about what they should and shouldn't be doing.

Pregnant women mustn't eat too much as it may raise the baby's risk of obesity or diabetes, but they mustn't diet as that could have a similar effect.

Neither should they exercise for fear of triggering a miscarriage, or get too stressed out because that's bad for the baby too. And if they do get stressed, they can't drink alcohol or go for a spa treatment to relax.

You might start to think that staying at home would be the sensible thing to do, only this too is ridden with potential dangers for your unborn child: from ice-cream, to pet shampoo, to hair dye. Even lying down or your back can allegedly cut off your baby's blood supply.

When I fell pregnant three years ago, I felt paralysed and somewhat patronised by all the conflicting advice out there.

I was also obsessed with the little life that was growing inside me, and desperate for more information about what it was doing in there.

Could it taste the curry I was eating; hear the songs I was singing; or sense when I took a swim in the freezing outdoor swimming pool near my home?

So I began a quest to investigate the truth behind the old wives' tales, alarming newspaper headlines and government guidelines, and to probe deeper into the inner world of the developing child. So Bumpology was born.

Booze and breastfeeding

Some of what I discovered while researching the book amused and amazed me: I learned that parents who already have a couple of boys are statistically more likely to go on having boys, though no-one really understands why; that the shape of a woman's bump provides no clues as to the gender of the baby within, but that women with severe morning sickness are slightly more likely to be carrying a girl; and that contrary to the received wisdom, babies actually can focus on objects further than 30cm away (even if they often under- or overshoot).

I also learned that much of the research underpinning medical advice on things like alcohol consumption - and even the health benefits of breastfeeding - is far from clear-cut and often aimed at the general population, rather than taking the individual into consideration.

In the case of alcohol, there's clear evidence that heavy drinking is harmful -- and even a daily glass of wine may increase the odds of a baby being born underweight, which carries additional risks to its health.

However, below this level, there is a massive grey zone where scientists simply don't yet have an answer to whether or not alcohol causes harm.

When it comes to breastfeeding, it's quite true that breast milk is best for babies, or at least better than formula milk in terms of protecting them against infections in the short term.

But when it comes to the much-touted long-term benefits of breastfeeding, such as protection against obesity, diabetes or allergy, the research is less convincing.

Certainly women who can't breastfeed for whatever reason, and who live in countries with a decent standard of health care, shouldn't waste too much time worrying that they are causing long-term damage to their baby's health.

'Overblown'

However, what alarmed me the most was the realisation that much of what women are told about the risks of medical interventions during labour - things like induction, epidural anaesthesia and undergoing a c-section - are overblown.

At the same time, statistics about the odds of needing medical assistance or on complications like tearing during a vaginal birth are frequently not talked about.

I believe that access to this kind of information could have a big influence on women's expectations of labour and on some of the decisions they make when planning for the birth of their child.

I also think it could help women to come to terms with things if labour doesn't go according to plan and they need additional help getting their baby out.

Having a baby can be one of the greatest joys that life bestows. However, it is also hard work and new parents can do without the unnecessary guilt, anxiety and doubt that misleading pregnancy advice brings.

It is also a time of great wonder and through my research I have learned things about my own children that will never cease to amaze me. I believe it's time to push aside the scaremongering and allow parents the freedom to enjoy this precious period of their lives.

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