A blog by Dr Lin Day



Baby Brain Syndrome: Fact or myth?

“Now why did I put my car keys in the fridge?”

Fact: Baby brain syndrome, the dippy feeling experienced by many mothers during pregnancy may be due to massive fluctuations in hormonal levels, sleep deprivation, loss of energy, difficulty in concentrating on anything other than the pregnancy, and lack of the essential fatty acid, omega-3.

Lack of omega-3 can result in 3 percent or more shrinkage in the mother’s brain, which accounts for the short-term memory loss that many women experience in their third trimester. The essential fatty acid is so important to the development of the baby’s brain in late pregnancy, that high levels are absorbed from the mother’s blood. If maternal blood levels are low, omega-3 is obtained from the mother’s brain.

Mothers can increase general brain function by eating oily fish rich in omega-3 such as organic natural salmon, sardines, halibut, and herring. Even small amounts can make a significant difference.

Raw nuts, flax, mustard, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and spinach also contain trace amounts of omega-3.

Concerns

Regular intake of fish has reduced dramatically in recent years, due to the risk of foetal exposure to methyl mercury, which has been linked to birth defects and brain damage in the past. This is particularly worrying in the light of recent work that shows that many disorders are the result of poor intake of omega-3 during pregnancy. Recent studies have shown that methyl mercury in fish is not as toxic as was originally proposed. Individual cases of toxicity are very rare.

As a precautionary measure, the Food Standards Agency suggests that pregnant women and nursing mothers avoid large fish (e.g. tuna, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel) and only eat smaller fish such as salmon, sardines, halibut, and herring.

Supplements

For mothers who dislike fish or wish to avoid it, omega-3 can be obtained from algae-derived supplements. Cod liver oil should be avoided since it may contain high amounts of vitamin A, which can be harmful. However, mothers who take medication for blood pressure or blood thinning or bruise very easily should check with their healthcare professional before taking omega-3 supplements.

Fun fact: some research shows that mums expecting girls may be more forgetful than those expecting boys. Although the reasons are unknown, it is thought that the increase in oestrogen can have a negative effect on the hippocampus – part of the brain involved in short-term memory.

 

 By Dr. Lin Day (www.babysensory.com)

Music and Prenatal Bonding

Research shows that exposing the foetus to music early on can make a dramatic difference to the development of the prenatal brain and the bonding process before and after the birth.

At what week of gestation does a baby start to hear?

The structural parts of the ear develop in the first 20 weeks of gestation. The auditory part of the brain becomes functional at about 25 weeks gestation (second trimester) and continues to develop up to 6 months after the birth. During the second trimester, the foetus responds with rhythmic swimming or kicking movements to sounds from the outside environment. From 32 weeks gestation, the foetus responds to the mother’s voice and to the pitch and pattern of a simple melody. In the last trimester, the auditory pathways become increasing refined and the foetus responds with sensitivity to new sounds and rhythms. At full-term, the sense of hearing is remarkably well developed, which enables the baby to process auditory information from the moment of birth.

What sort of music should you play to your unborn baby?

During early pregnancy, low sounds with pitch or frequency around middle C, such as the mother’s voice and classical music penetrate the womb more easily than higher frequencies. At 30 to 40 weeks’ gestation, the baby’s hearing will be fine-tuned to distinguish between sounds that vary in frequency from rock and roll music, to pop, jazz and swing. The choice of music depends entirely on the mother’s taste, but excessively loud noises can induce hearing loss and other health effects.

Note: during pregnancy, head phones must never be placed on the mother’s abdomen. Sound at 60 dB (sound pressure measured in decibels) will be heard by the foetus at 120 dB. Exposure at this level will destroy hair cells in the inner ear and significantly interfere with auditory development.

Do babies recognise certain tunes?

Foetal studies show that the theme tune of a TV programme played regularly during pregnancy reinforces functional memory. When played after the birth, babies stop crying, open their eyes and relax their muscles. Their heart rate also decreases on hearing the same tune. This is why white noise, which imitates the ‘shish’ sound that the foetus hears constantly in the womb, is particularly comforting to the newborn.

The earliest response to a familiar tune has been demonstrated at 22-23 weeks of gestational age and seems to occur earlier in females than in males. At 37 weeks of gestation, the foetus shows a significant increase in movements on hearing a familiar tune. However, when exposed to a strange voice, rhythm or tone, the foetal heartbeat increases. This indicates that learning and memory ability occurs before birth.

How does playing music benefit your unborn baby? 

Recent research demonstrates that musical capabilities are found in infants who have been exposed to music during foetal life. When a tune is played regularly, the foetus forms a memory of the sound patterns that echo through the womb, which may be retained for several weeks after the birth. Classical music, lullabies and songs that mimic the mother’s heart rate of 60 beats per second, will have an immediate and calming effect on the foetus. Music with a strong beat may speed up the baby’s heart rate and kicking may become more vigorous. As suggested above, excessively loud external noises should be avoided since these can be detrimental to the baby’s hearing.

Are there any benefits for the mother?

Elevated levels of stress during pregnancy are associated with maternal complications such as pre-eclampsia (pregnancy induced hypertension), premature birth and sleep disorders. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that music has a powerful anti-stress effect on the mother. Slow paced notes can elevate mood, reduce high blood pressure and make the process of labour a more enjoyable experience. Listening to a soothing piece of music can provide an opportunity for the mother to unwind and put her feet up, which also has a positive effect on the foetus. When the mother is calm and relaxed, the rhythmic motion of her breathing slows down foetal heart rate and reduces any potentially harmful effects to the baby’s brain and overall development.

How can music help a mum bond with her unborn baby?

Early listening to music can create an environment in which the mother and her unborn baby feel relaxed and peaceful together. Rocking or swaying to music for example, can synchronise maternal and foetal movements and promote the development of an attachment bond. If the mother talks, sings or reads to her baby, the foetus will turn in the direction of her voice. Turn-taking is a fundamental advancement in communication between the mother and her unborn baby. Such early interaction plays a vital role in the bonding process when mother and baby meet for the first time.

Further reading

Day RL (2008) Babies are so clever. Early Years Educator 9 (9): 24-26.

Confinement

In the 19th century, pregnancy and childbirth were the main causes of death in women. It is hardly any wonder that Victorian women were frightened at the thought of being pregnant!

To protect them from ill health, women were deterred from leaving their homes during the final stages of pregnancy. Exercise, walking or moving about, were discouraged to prevent muscle weakening. Bathing was disapproved of and sex was strictly forbidden. The ideal confinement involved lying on the back in bed covered with blankets. The curtains were drawn, or the windows were guarded with shutters, to exclude fresh air. Diet consisted of tea and other warm liquids and very little solid food. All these factors increased the risk of mortality during childbirth.

There is no evidence to suggest that confinement reduces the incidence of maternal mortality. In fact, regular bathing ensures good personal hygiene and it reduces the incidence of skin infection. Exercise increases blood flow to the uterus and it aids postpartum recovery. A well-balanced diet ensures adequate nutrition for the mother and the baby. An afternoon nap or walk in the fresh air can help to recharge batteries. Thankfully, modern mums find confinement practices too old-fashioned and restrictive!

Dads and Bonding

What are the benefits for baby of dad getting ‘hands on’ and bonding from day one?

Fathers, who are involved with the pregnancy, hold their babies close or skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth, and share routine activities with the mother such as feeding and changing, bathing and bedtime have a better chance of bonding with them. The most important factor in creating attachment is close physical contact.

Fathers who devote quality time to their babies and respond sensitively to their needs give them a far greater chance of becoming confident, optimistic, motivated, healthy children. The father’s attention, warmth, and affection can also have a major influence on their emotional and social well-being and academic achievement in later life. Therefore, it is essential for dads to spend time with their babies from the very beginning. Dads also develop lifelong bonds with their babies that cannot be formed in any other way.

Is it true that it’s chemically bonding and stress reducing for the father to spend time with his baby?

Close physical contact is the simplest and most effective way for fathers to chemically bond with their babies. Cuddling, skin-to-skin contact and massage releases oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and heightens his feelings towards his baby. Oxytocin has been called the ‘bonding’ hormone for its role in facilitating pair-bonding and long-term attachment. It can cause permanent beneficial brain changes in both the father and the baby.

Frequent proximity and touch between the father and baby can stimulate a surge of opioids (pleasure hormones), which act as buffers against stress. Opioid release in the baby can also be promoted by the smell of his aftershave, his voice and facial expressions and his hugs and kisses. Quality interactions with the baby also increase production of the hormone vasopressin, which promotes bonding and increases the father’s drive to stay at home with his family. For this reason, it is often described as the ‘monogamy’ hormone.

Do dads bond or play with babies differently to mums?

 

Mothers and fathers bring different strengths and styles to their parenting roles. Both roles complement each other and are important for the healthy development of the baby. For example, dads may encourage physical skills such as crawling, climbing and walking and provide stimulating interaction such as tickling and teasing. Mothers however, are more likely to offer comfort and protection from harm, which offers reassurance and security. The father’s style of talking may also be more brief and directive than the mother’s, whose language may be softer and more descriptive. Both styles of interaction are critical for development.

Studies have shown that girls who grow up with a loving, involved father are more likely to have healthy and emotionally balanced relationships with males in later life. Boys who grow up with a loving, involved father are more likely to behave less aggressively because they have been shown how to channel their masculinity in positive ways.

 

Babies who have benefited from paternal interactions from an early age get on better with their peers, are academically more successful, stay in school longer, use drugs and alcohol less frequently and are less likely to get involved with crime. They may also be better equipped socially and psychologically than children who receive very little attention from their fathers.

Some dads claims babies are a bit ‘boring’ or don’t really do anything at the early stage. What can dads do to enhance their baby’s development and make play fun?

Research consistently shows that the quality and content of involvement is far more important than the quantity of time that dads spend with their babies. Through quality interactions, dads can develop a special relationship with their babies and provide rich opportunities for learning and development.

Dads can add to baby development in a unique, fun and important way. For example, they can encourage exploratory skills by building mountains with pillows and by making dens and tunnels with boxes. Dads can also channel their own and their baby’s energies by engaging in musical activities with pots, pans and wooden spoons and through rough-housing activities such as tickling, bouncing and lifting them up into the air.

Dads can expand their baby’s horizons by playing with toys in non-traditional ways. For example, they can put a toy on their head, play peek-a-boo with the newspaper or throw a cushion instead of sitting on it. Dads can show their babies how a new toy works or get involved in activities such as rolling a ball back and forth.

Other types of play that dads enjoy might include a trip to the zoo or the beach, taking their babies swimming or to the park, going on a nature walk and involving them in outside activities such as sweeping up leaves, watering plants and going on a night time adventure with a flashlight. Babies also know that dads are fun to be with.

For the dad who finds it difficult to know what to say, reading a sporting or gardening magazine provides a wonderful opportunity for babies to cuddle close, to look at the pictures and to listen to the sound of his voice.

What are the positive or even down sides of paternal bonding?

Fathers are just as essential to healthy child development as mothers. However, the key factor in the father’s level of paternal involvement is the mother’s attitude about his competence in care-giving and comfort. Her willingness to share the care of the baby is the most important factor in determining his future involvement.

Further reading

Day RL (2008) Forming a loving bond. Early Years Educator 10 (2): 32-34.

Day RL (2008) Gender differences. Early Years Educator 10 (7): 28-30.

Day RL (2009) Fathers in childcare. Early Years Educator 11 (3): 37-39.

Day RL (2010) Universal play for babies. Early Years Educator11 (12): 48-50.

Bonding before Birth

Some parents feel connected to their unborn baby as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed or after the first antenatal visit. For others, the emotional bond develops more gradually.

Between 10 and 12 weeks gestation, the foetal heartbeat, which resembles the hoof beats of a galloping horse, can be heard clearly. Listening to the sound can be a very moving experience for the parents. It also provides reassurance that all is well. For many fathers, the bonding process begins at this stage of the pregnancy.

An ultrasound scan at 12 weeks builds up an early image of the foetus. The baby’s hands and feet can be seen, and the eyes, ears and genitalia are in place, but not completely formed. An early ultrasound scan is not 100% accurate and parents should not pin their hopes on having a boy or girl at this stage.

The immense pride in sharing ultrasound images with friends, family and work colleagues heighten emotional ties to the baby. Studies show that a clear demonstration of the baby’s face on the image is more important than any other anatomical part. Parents often say that they can see their baby as a ‘little person’.

At about 18 week’s gestation, the first foetal movements may be felt. As the weeks go by, the baby kicks the uterine wall, performs summersaults and pushes the mother’s abdomen, which provides reassurance of the developing baby’s health and growth. The father can also feel and see the baby kicking and turning inside the mother’s abdomen, which enhances his involvement and interest in the pregnancy.

At 20 weeks, the genitalia can be clearly seen on the ultrasound scan. For some parents, knowing the sex of their unborn baby can have a profound effect on their feelings, preparations and future expectations. However, the sonographer will not reveal the sex of the baby unless the parents wish to find out.

Research shows that from 14 weeks gestation, the baby responds to sounds and vibrations from the outside world. Heart rate slows down to the sound of the mother’s voice, which provides comfort and reassurance. In response to the voice of a stranger, heartbeat quickens and kicking becomes more vigorous. Knowing that the baby can hear and recognise familiar voices provides an incredible opportunity for the parents to read or sing to their unborn baby.

If the mother is stressed or anxious, foetal heart rate can double, but when she is calm and relaxed, the baby will be too. Relaxing to a favourite piece of music, massage, yoga, getting as much rest and sleep as possible, avoiding stressful situations and having fun with friends and family can help reduce maternal stress and benefit the baby at the same time.

In the third trimester, the baby responds to simple interaction games with the mother or father. For example, when the mother talks or sings a familiar rhyme, the baby may reciprocate with vigorous kicking movements. If a protruding foot is gently pressed, the baby may pull it back and then push it out again to get a reaction. Such responses heighten excitement and reinforce feelings towards the unborn baby.

Close to the birth, the baby sleeps for about 19 hours. Between frequent naps, the baby has an alert period, which generally occurs in the evening when the mother is resting. This provides an exciting opportunity for parents to talk, sing or play with their unborn baby.

Parental interactions during pregnancy facilitate attachment and perhaps even help parents to adapt to the role of parenthood. Forming an early relationship with the baby can also enrich the parents’ lives, and have a direct impact on the baby’s brain growth and developmental outcomes after the birth.

Further reading

Day RL (2014) Prenatal development. Early Years Educator16(6): 41-44.