Come join me on Preg U!

preg U seal clear back@2x

If you’re wondering where I’ve been… Here! I’ve been here! Click on the image to come hang out with me.

Hi friends!

As you can probably tell from my lack of recent posts, my writing/posting/bloggin’ time has been shifted over to other things. Two littles, a full time job, blah blah blah….

BUT luckily, my full time job involves writing about pregnancy! Woohooo!

With my team over at Bloomlife we’re launching a new publication called preg U to provide a better resource – a smart girls’ guide to pregnancy and parenting. Fact-based articles ranging from the Biology of pregnancy to current research and myth busting  to historical breakdowns of silly pregnancy terminology.

We aim to provide the information you need in the context of your own, personal and unique pregnancy journey. Or just satisfy that fascination with the amazingness that is pregnancy.

Basically it’s The Pregnant Scientist and Friends! (Friends include Amy from Expecting Science and she is AHHHHMAZING)

And it is awesome (well, I might be biased.) We’ll be pumping out cool stuff on a regular basis so sign up for our newsletter, follow the Preg U publication, or comment below with questions/topics you want to see tackled and I’ll link to them when we publish.

Join me!

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9 ways to give your overdue baby the boot (supposedly)

Back when I was trying my damndest to evict little E (can’t believe that was over five months ago!) I decided to dig into the literature on natural induction.

Check out my post over on Medium – https://medium.com/40-weeks/9-ways-to-give-your-overdue-baby-the-boot-supposedly-9119ff1cab96#.4i01pfrdt

Spoiler alert – you may have to get extreme with this one.

9 ways to give your overdue baby the boot (supposedly) – 40 weeks

What science says about natural induction techniques. Today marks 40 weeks + 5 days pregnant. Not cool, baby, not cool. While I have no trust in due dates, it is still incredibly frustrating to watch yours come and go. Needless to say, natural induction techniques are high on my to-do list these days.

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No sleeping on your back! Wait, what?!

Of all the “no no’s” thrown at your growing pregnant body, the one that I found ridiculously frustrating was the “No sleeping on your back” rule.

Sleep is a precious precious commodity when carting around a huge pregnant belly. Why would you dictate how I sleep with this thing?!

The reasoning for the sleep position policing stems from the idea that back sleeping can choke off your baby’s oxygen supply.

Here is the “logic”:

Your uterus is heavy. So heavy, in fact, that it puts weight on the vena cava, the vein that runs blood back to your heart. A compressed vena cava means decreased blood back to the heart and therefore, decreased blood coming out from the heart. Less oxygenated blood for you, less oxygenated blood for the baby. Not good.

I really wanted to call bullshit on this one during my last pregnancy (yet dutifully buoyed myself on my side with pillows each night). I mean, if oxygenated blood is getting cut off, it would affect how that blood gets to the brain and you would feel dizzy. Right? So, isn’t that a simple test to see if your heavy uterus cuts off your blood supply? Lay down, feel woozy, heavy uterus!

Drs Farine and Seaward at the University of Toronto seem to agree with me.

“Women should be told that a small minority of pregnant women feel faint when lying flat” – Dan Farine, MD, FRCSC, P. Gareth Seaward, MD, FRCSC

Of course, my experimental nature was cut short when a friend sent me this article.

Medical student, Allan Kember is fighting stillbirth with a belt that prevents pregnant moms from sleeping on their backs.

Stillbirth!? Back sleeping!? Holy shit. Maybe this deserves a second look.

I called up Allan.

Allan’s research stemmed from studies like this one and this one. Most inspiring though was a study coming out of Ghana in which the authors showed that a quarter of stillbirths might be prevented by changing mom’s sleep position. Allan wanted to answer the call for a simple, inexpensive solution to solve stillbirth in the developing world. His thought process: encourage expecting moms to not sleep on their back, save a few babies.

Cool.

Of course, I had to bug him about the whole vena cava scenario. He admitted that this might not be the full picture.

Another culprit? Gestational sleep apnea (sleep disordered breathing).

Here’s the problem though: we really do not understand gestational sleep apnea well enough to point a finger quite yet and we have no idea how sleep apnea might affect a growing baby. Oxygen flow disturbances? Stress responses? Mom snoring too loudly?

Ok, probably not the last one.

At the end of the day, it seems that stillbirth may follow a similar rule as what has recently been shown in SIDS research. It isn’t any one thing that causes it. It’s the perfect storm of complications that can result in stillbirth.

The triple risk:

(1) maternal risk factors, (2) fetal risk factors (low growth rate, placental insufficiency), and (3) a stressor (such as back sleeping).

Don’t tick off all three boxes, you’re in the clear. At risk already? Do whatever you need to do to prevent that third tick and you’re in the clear.

SIDS research has figured out a way to prevent that third tick in as many babies as possible, regardless of preexisting vulnerabilities – the giant, border crossing “Back to Sleep” campaign where parents are reminded to never put a baby to sleep on her tummy. The result? A decrease in SIDS with an increase in flat heads. But flat heads are fine if it means babies keep breathing into adulthood.

Of the 4 possible sleep positions, pregnant women end up on their backs over 25% of the time, with over 80% of women hitting this position some time during the night. It’s normal. It’s common. It’s an epidemic?

Researchers in the UK are now trying to determine if a national campaign, similar to the SIDS “Back to Sleep”, should be launched to tell moms not to sleep on their backs.

This is where I draw the line.

Going to sleep with a homework assignment (“do not sleep on your back!), is enough to keep us pregnant moms up worrying about what all the damage we can do to our unborn child while we toss and turn. One study showed exactly this – asking women to make sure they slept on their left sides results in decreased overall sleep time.

When quality sleep is so freaking important during pregnancy and so freaking difficult to achieve, why mess with it more?

Here’s another gem of a quote from Drs. Farine and Seaward:

“If lying prone had been detrimental to a normal pregnancy, the species would long ago have ceased to exist” – Dan Farine, MD, FRCSC, P. Gareth Seaward, MD, FRCSC

Back to the stillbirth thing. Maybe the first thing to tackle is figuring out how to define which women and babies are at risk and come up with solutions for this small subset. Maybe it’s a CPAP to treat sleep apnea, maybe it’s a belt with balls to encourage side sleeping, maybe it’s a mound of body pillows.

For now, it’s time for me and my big, heavy, vein crushing uterus to hit the hay.

My birth story vs. science

vintage nursery2

I’ve been diving back into the world of pregnancy since starting to work with Bloom Technologies.

My first challenge – analyze my birth story against all scientific and medical definitions at my disposal and decide if my labor progression classified as “normal”.

(Spoiler alert: it’s really freaking hard to tell.)

Here’s the story:

https://medium.com/40-weeks/my-birth-story-vs-science-d0baebdfd72c

Get your baby on board the probiotic bandwagon?

baby's belly

Ah, probiotics. The supplement du jour.

It was only a matter of time. Just as we started wrapping our heads around the concept of consuming “live cultures” for gut health, the market spilled into the realm of baby products.

Would you deny your baby something that promises eternal tummy happiness?


WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?

Is it me, or are probiotics one of those things that we nod our head in conversation and go “oh, sure, totally, it’s soooo important” without having a freaking clue what we are talking about?

Here’s a super quick summary of our belly bugs —

We eat stuff… let’s say kale. Our measly human machinery cannot break down the tough bits in kale. We simply do not have the tools.

You know who does have the tools? Bacteria. Specialized little worker bugs that hang out in our intestine with their tools all ready for the kale chunks that escape our ill-equipped stomach.

In exchange for room and board, those little worker bugs break down that kale and kick back some nutrients we would have missed. Kale-eatin’ bugs are only the start. Along with a range of other little bug friends, our gut is host to a beautiful little ecosystem that, when kept happy and in balance, can confer all kinds of health benefits.

Probiotics? Anything that you might ingest containing live microorganisms (bacteria) that pass through the digestive system to confer “benefits” once they reach the intestines. For example, a whole range of yogurt products have “live cultures” on board and are promoted as probiotics.
Here’s the problem — our gut is already jam packed with resident bacteria. After those “live cultures” brave the digestive passage to end up in your gut, they drop off the good stuff they already made while waiting out in the yogurt, and pass on through. The real estate landscape is already too crowded and the residents are not likely to make room for the new guys.

But you know whose gut does have a lot of open real estate?

Babies.


COLONIZING THE BABY GUT

In order to establish residency, the microbes have to get there.

When they’re born, babies are rubbed all over by bacteria that may be important for gut colonization. The gut of a C-section babies compared to a vaginal birth babies shows profound differences. Babies that come out on their own have higher quantities of helpful microbes. Presumably, this is a result of spending time in the birth canal. But, this study cannot rule out another possible influence — C-section mamas went through major surgery and weren’t able to nurse immediately or effectively for the days before the test (samples taken on day 3 post-birth) [1].

Which brings us to that mama milk.

We all know that breast milk passes along important antibodies, but here’s another thing that breast milk may provide— gut bacteria.

Yes, helpful microbes may also be passed along in the milk [2].

More importantly, human breast milk contains a critical prebiotic to sustain the helpful bacteria.


PREBIOTICS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN PROBIOTICS

Ok, prebiotics, what are those?

Think of prebiotics as the food for the good bacteria. Without a prebiotic, the probiotic bacteria reaching the intestine realize that there is nothing for them to do and nothing for them to eat, and they wave goodbye to the other bacteria setting up shop and head on out the other end. They are probably not around long enough to confer any kind of benefit to that baby.

No food? No bugs.

Human breast milk has special complex sugars, called Human Milk Oligosaccharides. The human body cannot digest these sugars. Only specialized bacteria can digest them. By introducing this prebiotic, the bacteria that feast on this specific sugar flourish. They set up shop and multiply. They also kick back amazing benefits — immune system building, preparing a happy gut for adulthood, and the list goes on.

But these bacteria will only set up shop if they have those special mama sugars available. No sugars? No food. No bugs.

You can have a prebiotic without a probiotic, but a probiotic without a prebiotic is useless.

Adult side note:
One funny thing about this all is that a common probiotic on the market is a little posse of bacteria called Bifidobacteria. These bacteria were first isolated from baby poo and now they are the main health bug in a whole range of probiotic products aimed at adults.

The problem? Bifido prefers Human Milk Oligosaccharides as a prebiotic. Since I’m pretty sure no adult is taking a healthy swig of breast milk on a daily basis, it’s hard to say how much benefit our adult gut is getting from adding these fellas to our daily diet.


BACK TO THE BABIES!  THE VERDICT?

Hmmm…

First, here are my general concerns —

One, you are essentially feeding your baby bacteria. Where is this bacteria coming from? How is it controlled, isolated, tested?

Two, the baby gut is trying to do it’s thing. It is set up to do it’s thing. Do we need to play puppet master to a community that has evolved for beautiful symbiotic balance?

So, at first I would have said “NO, crazy!” but upon greater reflection I have softened my stance.

A few scenarios:

Natural birth, breastfeeding mama — why mess with nature? This is my category, and, personally, I will not be giving the wee one probiotics.

C-section, breastfeeding mama — Tough one. We still do not know how important the exit strategy is for setting up the important bacteria. Maybe they could use a boost?

Super early baby, breastfeeding mama — Ok, for this one there are some data. A recent study in a NICU, doctors gave babies born pre-term (< 32 weeks), daily doses of a carefully screened probiotic. There was a significant reduction in necrotizing enterocolitis (a super scary intestinal disease in preemies). Sure, the numbers went from 10% to 5% but when you are talking about babies, every baby counts. The authors conclusion was to adopt daily probiotic administration into the protocol of pre-term care [3].

See a pattern? Breastfeeding is key. The boobs make the prebiotic.

Even in the NICU study, 93% of the mothers were nursing.


FORMULA + PROBIOTICS?

Only human milk has the one true prebiotic to encourage the happy bugs to grow and establish their community.

To get around this, formula companies have tried to mimic Human Milk Oligosaccharides with a combination of complex, but not as complex, sugars: Galacto-oligosaccharides and Fructo-oligosaccharide (GOS/FOS). Some research suggests that having this GOS/FOS prebiotic is enough to get the happy bacteria established in the baby gut similar to the breast-fed baby (no probiotic necessary) [4]. Other research warns that we don’t know enough about GOS/FOS to be messing around with it [5].


Research on everything involving the baby gut is still in its infancy (pun intended).

We haven’t mapped out every inch of bacterial real estate in the ever changing baby intestine. We don’t know the job description for every occupant. We don’t know the long-term effects of manipulating the landscape.

I say, leave ‘em be for now.

The baby will figure out how to walk.

The microbes will figure out how to flourish.

1. Jost, T., Lacroix, C., Braegger, C., Chassard, C., 2013. Assessment of bacterial diversity in breast milk using culture-dependent and culture-independent approaches. Br J Nutr 110, 1253–1262span>

2. Biasucci, G., Rubini, M., Riboni, S., Morelli, L., Bessi, E., Retetangos, C., 2010. Mode of delivery affects the bacterial community in the newborn gut. Early Human Development 86, 13–15.

3. Janvier, A., Malo, J., Barrington, K., 2014. Cohort Study of Probiotics in a North American Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The Journal of Pediatrics 164, 980–985.

4. Bakker-Zierikzee, A.M., Alles, M.S., Knol, J., Kok, F.J., Tolboom, J.J.M., Bindels, J.G., 2005. Effects of infant formula containing a mixture of galacto- and fructo-oligosaccharides or viable Bifidobacterium animalis on the intestinal microflora during the first 4 months of life. Br J Nutr 94, 783–790.

5. Ninonuevo, M.R., Bode, L., 2008. Infant Formula Oligosaccharides Opening the Gates (for Speculation) 1–3.

Mommy brain

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My husband and I had little — meaning no — baby experience before bringing our daughter home. We would jokingly ask questions like “how much do we have to feed this thing?” and then nervously laugh, look at each other with concern, and consult the “owner’s manual” (our affectionate name for the American Academy of Pediatrics tome).

And then, she was born. An insane flurry of eat, poop, soothe, repeat.

After those first few weeks, when the dust settled, I had a profound revelation — I might actually know what I’m doing! Could I now have maternal instincts that were not there before?

By its very definition, “instinct” is a response that is inherent, basic, not requiring thought or careful consideration. Unlearned. Unconscious. Instinct. [Note: maternal instinct makes sense given that we have yet to see a National Geographic film of a baboon parenting class gathering every third Tuesday on the savannah.]

Turns out, there is quite a bit of evidence demonstrating that our brain does, in fact, change when we transition from clueless pregnant woman to caregiver. 

As pointed out in a 2012 review in Physiology and Behavior, this transition marks an important point at which our brains have to shift from a world revolving around self-care to one oriented around the care of a tiny helpless being. With a little bit of parenting experience, the mammalian brain shows changes in cognition (e.g. spatial memory, attention), emotional responsiveness (e.g. boldness in new settings, focus), and social awareness (e.g. attention to those helpless little beings). Put a pregnant rat in a cage with pups strewn about, and she doesn’t give a shit. Put a mama rat in a cage with pups strewn about, and she goes right to work, gathering up those babies, protecting and nurturing them.

Now, it probably helps that the mama brain is also altered to respond to baby with a spurt of sweet sweet dopamine right in the reward centers of the brain, similar to a hit of cocaine.

Yup, our babies are addictive. 

As demonstrated in a 2005 paper in The Journal of Neuroscience, a mama rat with a suckling rat pup feels the same dopamine reward signal as a virgin rat does when given cocaine. Interestingly, though, in the mama rats, a dose of cocaine does not have this same effect and actually suppresses activity in the reward center. Nature’s way of focusing mom’s attention — You want to get high? Feed your baby.

But wait, a similar high does not require baby at the teat. In a 2008 study in Pediatrics, researchers using human subjects showed moms pictures of their own baby, or someone else’s, along a spectrum from smiley to distressed (see figure on left). Those same dopamine pathways were activated in these human mothers, BUT only when they were shown pictures of their own babies, and only when the babies were smiling.

But, c’mon, did you need a scientist to tell you that your baby’s smiles are like crack?

At the end of the day, though, the joke is on us. Evolution has crafted tiny manipulation machines. All those cute baby features — chubby cheeks, big eyes, tiny noses, large foreheads — drive our most basic urge to cuddle and protect. Our brains instinctively respond to “baby schema,” a term coined by Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel Prize-winning zoologist famous for studying imprinting and having adorable photos of baby geese following him around and preening his beard. Even the guy’s guy can’t ignore a cute baby face. Go watch Three Men and a Baby for the not-so-scientific evidence. 

If you do want scientific evidence, a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented which areas of the brain are activated when non-mothers were shown pictures of babies with enhanced or downplayed “baby schema”-typical features. Using manipulated pictures of babies either made “cuter” or, well, not so cute, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the cuter the baby, the more activated the area of the brain associated with anticipation of reward. The motivational drive to become caregivers to cute little critters runs deep in our animal instincts.

There you have it, humans. We all have a little bit of mommy brain! 

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Lambert, K. G. The parental brain: Transformations and adaptations. Physiology and Behavior 107, 792–800 (2012).

Strathearn, L., Li, J., Fonagy, P. & Montague, P. R. What’s in a Smile? Maternal Brain Responses to Infant Facial Cues. PEDIATRICS 122, 40–51 (2008).

Ferris, Craig F., et al. Pup suckling is more rewarding than cocaine: evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging and three-dimensional computational analysis. The Journal of Neuroscience 25.1, 149-156 (2005).

Glocker, M. L. et al. Baby schema modulates the brain reward system in nulliparous women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 9115–9119 (2009).

On maternity leave… kinda

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It’s been almost three months from my last post.

Not so coincidentally, the babe (formerly known as “womb baby”) is approaching her three month birthday. 

While busy with the madness that is having a new (and very dependent) human in my life, tackling a new post for The Pregnant Scientist has been a bit tricky.  Instead, I decided to revisit and summarize seven of my favorite findings during this pregnancy. 

https://medium.com/science-and-its-communication/fca48a718d9f

I still have a lot of questions to ask and hope to start tackling new posts soon.  In the meantime, if you have any ideas/questions for upcoming posts, please leave a comment below!