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The Impact of Prenatal Exposure on Later Development

Posted on October 22, 2010

Scientific research continues to provide evidence that the prenatal stage of human development can have significant effects on health and development in subsequent life stages. Exposure to toxic substances such as lead, alcohol, cocaine and other drugs has been linked to various problems, including low birth weight, delays in cognitive and neurological development, and later behavioral and learning disorders. These developmental disorders have a significant impact on not only the child, but also the family and community. Schubert Center Faculty Associates Dr. Maureen Hack and Dr. Lynn Singer are among a number of researchers conducting longitudinal research with low birth weight infants, many with a history of prenatal exposure to toxic substances, to examine the effects of these early exposure infants’ biological, psychological and behavioral development throughout their lives.

While there is clear evidence that fetal exposure may impact later development, the relationship is complex and warrants further investigation. For example, research has established a relatively clear connection between alcohol use during pregnancy and developmental disorders in childhood. However, a recent article published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health suggests that light alcohol use during pregnancy does not appear to negatively impact development. While alcohol use during pregnancy clearly can be detrimental, the mechanisms through which alcohol impacts development is still being explored.

To read more about Dr. Hack’s and Dr. Singer’s ongoing research projects, download these Schubert Center for Child Studies Policy Briefs :

The Long Term Outcomes for Premature and Low Birth Weight Infants
Dr. Maureen Hack
Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology, CWRU

Parenting Very Low Birth Weight Children From Birth To Adolescence
Dr. Lynn Singer
Professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, Psychiatry & General Medical Sciences, CWRU

For a summary and link to the recent article on alcohol use during pregnancy, click here.

The impact of prenatal exposures, both positive and negative, are also subject of a new popular book exploring the effects of various fetal exposures, including mother’s diet, nutrition, stress, trauma and drug exposure, on human development. In Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, author Annie Murphy Paul provides a personal account of her own attempts to sift through the growing body of scientific literature examining prenatal exposure as she makes decisions as an expectant mother. Though not intended as a scientific review of the literature on the topic, Paul provides an engaging survey of topics currently under investigation and insight into the ways in which these findings may shape parental behavior.

Read a review of Origins by New York Times writer Jerome Groopman.

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