G force

Shaping lives from the womb

(Ali Price)
May 23, 2011

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Q. The main point of your book is that what happens to us in our mother’s womb can affect us decades later.

A. Our bodies are literally created during those nine months, so it makes sense that that’s where our ailments in later life would begin.

Q. That can seem pretty scary if you’re the one who’s pregnant.

A. We could just as easily turn it around: Health begins in the womb, too. It does matter what women do during pregnancy, but that’s an opportunity rather than a reason to become swallowed up with anxiety. We’re learning that pregnancy can be a moment when women can change how they think about their own health and their children’s health for the better. And a moment when society can get involved and help improve the health and well-being of the next generation.

Q. It seems like everyone has an opinion about what pregnant women should or shouldn’t be doing.

A. Pregnant women can’t avoid these messages. If you don’t hear them on the radio or TV or the newspaper, your friends and your parents and even helpful strangers on the street will let you know. [My feeling is] if we’re going to be bombarded by this information, better to understand it.

Q. It seems like every week there’s new research about pregnancy, but much of it seems to contradict last week’s new research about pregnancy.

A. Following the research moment-by-moment can be very confusing. But I think there are some general principles that the lay person can use.

Q. Eating healthy food is presumably one of those principles?

A. Nutrition is incredibly important, more important than we realized.

Q. What was the most interesting thing you learned in writing this book?

A. Probably my favorite research was a couple of studies that showed that moderate stress is actually beneficial for the fetus. Moderate everyday stress works as a kind of workout for the fetal nervous system. It tones it, it conditions it.

Q. Does your research have any implications for the abortion debate?

A. I don’t think that the emerging field of fetal research really favors either side of the abortion debate. Pro-choice factions have sometimes presented the fetus as not much more than a blob of tissue, and I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the fetus is responding, adapting, is a very active presence even before birth. At the same time, I think sometimes, pro-life groups have almost separated the pregnant woman and the fetus, and I think what we’re learning is that’s just not an accurate way to look at pregnancy.

Q. You describe pregnancy as almost a form of communication between the mother and the fetus.

A. You can think of fetal origins as really being a process of the pregnant woman telling her fetus stories, in effect, about what kind of world the fetus is going to encounter once it is born. Is it one of abundance or scarcity? Is it one of safety and security, or constant danger and threat? The fetus organizes its body and brain accordingly. That was a very meaningful idea for me and one that I thought about a lot when I was pregnant.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

Karen Weintraub can be reached at

Annie Murphy Paul
New York-based science journalist Annie Murphy Paul was in town last week to speak at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Her latest book, “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives,’’ comes out in paperback this summer.