Pregnancy advice 'scaremongering'

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.


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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  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    #63, no, that isn't a fact. It's an unsupported leap from an anecdote.
    The author of this article clearly states that heavy drinking can damage the fetus. But she also states (and can provide references, if you buy her book), that it is unclear whether drinking small amounts carries an increased risk.
    In any case, attempting to extrapolate risk from a single case is statistically invalid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    There is a lot of scare-mongering out there and a lot of people do make pregnant women and new mothers feel guilty about something. For me the breastfeeding one is key. I'm in my 2nd trimester and already people are saying I shouldn't have bought bottles etc because I should be breastfeeding when we KNOW that I won't be because medication I need to take is transferred through breast milk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Hi I'm a Grandmother to a 3 year old boy which I've had from birth. His biological mother binge drank every month. When my grandson was 3 months old I started noticing things were not right he never babbled slept 4 hours a night and never cried for a feed. over the months his behaviour was far from normal and at 18 months he was diagnosed with FASD all because of Alcohol. one sip is too much FACT

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Dont know about this bit:
    "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. "
    I've looked up what she has previously said about this in New Scientist (where bumpology started), but I've drawn a blank.. Does anybody know what evidence she brings to this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    "Linda Geddes, the author of Bumpology" or "Linda Geddes, some woman".

    Which is more useful to you when judging the value of the article? Is it unfair politcal promotion to refer to a person by the office they hold, is it unfair to tell you what company someone works for in a bussness article? No its context.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Mentioning her book gives users of this website an idea of why there might be a reason to listen to her on this particular subject. It is fundmental information about why she was asked to write this article. They could have put "writer for the New Scientist" there instead, but that is less relevant than her having a book out about this particular subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    OnlyOneDaveSmith, Why the plug? Er.... why do you ask? When a new film is released, the stars and director do the rounds of the media. It's the same with book releases. Media exposure sells, and it's the job of book publicists to get their authors as much of it as possible. To me, this "plug" seems no different from any other. For many a BBC item is prompted by a book or film release.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I agree we need to address how different risks and benefits of different birth plans are presented to pregnant women; very often the risks of medical intervention are overemphasised while the risks of natural or 'normal' are ignored entirely or underestimated.
    That's why I co-wrote the exensively researched 'Choosing a Cesarean, A Natural Birth Plan' - to expose many myths about planned surgery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    "Linda Geddes, the author of Bumpology"

    Why is the BBC giving Linda a free plug ... or did she pay for an ad in the Guardian (a la Kirchner) and the Beeb is simply reporting the fact ..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Drinking whilst pregnant is a NO! It causes life effecting brain damage from consumption of as little as 6 units of alcohol Fact! I challenge anyone to spend a day with a child or adult suffering from FASD and the effects from autism, adhd,memory problems they'll need care for life.In your words there are mixed messages about this, so did you consult with any families that have children with FASD?

  • Comment number 55.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Quite a good article but the one factual thing everyone misses is the vital importance of Colostrum (yes I fed mine for 11 and 7 months respectively but now realise that the main thing was that 'thin watery stuff only available during the first 48 hours which is not painful to give or public either!) contd

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    It sets the baby up for its environment and is a tailormade protection - I was shocked to discover that farmers move heaven and earth to ensure that baby lambs and calves get theirs! But apart from that read/listen to everything but take nothing as Gospel and do what Frank Sinatra said!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I'm past the bump stage x 2, or i would love to read it...will you follow up with similar research for toddlers and beyond? I'm sure there's plenty of similar information confusion. i find most health visitors very keen to tick boxes rather than use their noddles to assess individuals in context. i was recently asked to see a dietician to check my exclusively breastfed baby's diet doh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    A normal pregnancy is not a medical condition. Women have been carrying babies throughout our evolution and it has never been safer to be a mother than it is in the western world now. I kept healthy before and after being pregnant, never had any medical intervention during labour and yes, breastfed as any other species of mammal does.It was my choice and all women should be free to choose as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Some of the 'information' I was given in both my pregnancies was mind boggling. From the silly - using a wedding ring to divine the sex of your baby - to the stupid - get rid of my cat as he will sit on my babies face an smother him! Some information is good, but take the advice with a pinch of salt and humour. No two pregnancies are the same and advice is not a one size fits all thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Pixina, no worries, I understand. You should check out my book though :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    bumpology, i didn't mean to offend, but i do feel that the Beeb should allow you a much longer article, as you are forced to skim over a huge subject area with little depth...if reading only this article it therefore becomes just more information mothers are expected to investigate, filter and decipher. It wasn't clear to me that it was actually book synopsis, clearly up my street ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @46.giovanna .
    I'm sorry but your comments still make me uneasy, though I appreciate you taking the time to explain.Why do you equate larger families with production lines & mindlessness?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    44. mscracker "but instead chose the poor for your illustration"

    To be strictly accurate, I chose the 'mindless poor' in my first post on this and that is a relatively small sub-group of the poor. I do not doubt there are also some mindless rich but perhaps they have better support and education, which may make them less likely to set up a production line for offspring. I have no data on that.


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