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Pregnancy and birth: here comes the science bit



Recently, Mumsnet blogger and New Scientist journalist Linda Geddes triggered a bit of a storm when she tackled NCT chief Belinda Phipps on whether their advice is evidence-based. There's more info on this thread, if you want to catch up.

Here, she tells us how she came to write her book 'Bumpology' - and ten surprising truths about pregnancy and birth that she uncovered in the course of researching it.

When I became pregnant three years ago, I felt overwhelmed by the conflicting newspaper headlines, health advice and opinions about what I should and shouldn't be doing with my body. I was also bursting with questions about my developing baby. When would he or she become conscious? Could they taste what I was eating? And was there any truth to old wives' tales about guessing a baby's gender? I decided to put my science journalist background to good use, and began a column called Bumpology for New Scientist. I reasoned that at the very least, it would stop me getting sacked for spending hours on end Googling such trivia as: "can my unborn baby taste curry?"

But once my daughter, Matilda, arrived, I had a whole new set of questions. Could she remember what she did yesterday, or three weeks ago? Had anybody tested the best way to get a baby to sleep through the night? And if you combine breast- and formula feeding, does a baby still get the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding?

Logging on to parenting forums like Mumsnet, I realised that women were asking many of the same questions. Thus my book, Bumpology, was born.

Much of what I discovered during the months of research amazed and amused me. At other times I was shocked by what I learned, and - when it came to some of the advice I'd been given during National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes - even angered. I felt like the risks associated with medical interventions during childbirth had been over-hyped, while the downsides of natural childbirth (things like tearing, constipation, getting stuck in the early stages of labour for days, had simply not been mentioned). When I voiced some of these concerns to NCT chief Belinda Phipps on the Today programme last week, it triggered an outpouring of collective irritation at the NCT, led by TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp.

Mostly though, my research emphasised to me just what an amazing journey the nine months of pregnancy and the first year of a baby's life is. So I've compiled a list of ten things that I found particularly surprising:

1. Your chances of having a boy or girl are not always 50:50

There are some situations where the odds of having a boy or girl are ever-so-slightly weighted more strongly in one sex's favour. Women in high-stress jobs; older mothers and attractive parents are more likely to have daughters, while dads who earn lots of money or work in typically male occupations like engineering; and women with polycystic ovarian syndrome or multiple sclerosis are more likely to have sons.

2. Babies aren't born blank slates

Newborns already have some concept of who their mother is (they know her voice and smell); what a human face should look like; and an appreciation of numbers, movement and distance. They also have a natural sense of rhythm.

3. Men are biologically primed to be dads

If you thought mums were the only ones whose hormones go haywire at birth, think again. Levels of testosterone decline in new dads, while levels of the breastfeeding hormone prolactin and the cuddle-chemical oxytocin both rise. All these changes seem to be associated with dad-like behaviour, and the more dads interact with their baby, the more these hormones rise. It's like a vicious circle of dad-love.

4. Breastfeeding doesn't make your boobs sag

It's actually all the changes that occur during pregnancy that are responsible for creating saggy boobs. Fat gets replaced with glandular tissue, and this can stretch the skin and ligaments in the breasts. Once you stop breastfeeding (or even if you never start) this network of milk-producing glands then self-destructs, leaving gaps that need to be filled with fat. Some women are better at doing this than others.

5. Having an epidural doesn't mean you're more likely to need a c-section

There's no strong evidence that having an epidural to dull labour pains will mean you're more likely to end up on the operating table. Neither are you vastly more likely to need an instrumental delivery (involving forceps or a suction device called a ventouse). Around twenty women would need to have an epidural for just one extra instrumental delivery to take place. 

6. Giving a bottle or dummy to a newborn won't "confuse" it

There is little scientific evidence for the existence of "nipple confusion", that phrase so beloved of health visitors who try to discourage the early introduction of dummies or bottles by warning that babies will no longer want to drink from the breast.

7. Women's brains differ in their response to motherhood

If you scan women's brains 3 weeks after birth you see greater activation of areas involved in emotional processing, reward and addiction. But the extent to which these areas are activated varies between individuals. Some women effectively become "addicted" to their babies, while women who experience a lot of activity in the emotional processing areas often become anxious and protective of their newborns.

8. Biodegradable nappies aren't necessarily any greener than standard disposables

Put a biodegradable nappy into landfill and it won't biodegrade because it's largely cut off from the water, oxygen and bacteria needed for decomposition to occur. You need to compost them instead. Reusable nappies washed at a moderate heat and line-dried are greenest of all.

9. Babies can see further than 30cm in front of them

Babies can focus on objects at any distance, but because they're not very good at it they often over- or under-shoot. Because the connections between their eyes and brain aren't completely mature, the world also appears quite grainy.

Bumpology Linda Geddes

10. Babies say Dada before Mama because of the way their mouths develop

Sounds like "ba" "da" "ga" and "ma" are some of the easiest to make, so that's where babies tend to start. But "ma" is harder than "da" because you have to relax your soft-palate as well as moving your lips and jaw. "Ma" is also less common than "da" in everyday language, so the fact that babies usually start with "dada" may reflect this. At any rate, early baby babble isn't supposed to be any more than just noise, so mums shouldn't feel hurt if their baby says dada first.


Linda Geddes is the author of Bumpology: the myth-busting pregnancy book for curious parents-to-be – find out more hereIf there's a science-y question about pregnancy or birth that's always puzzled you, and that Linda hasn't covered, tweet us @MumsnetBloggers - you could win one of ten copies of the book!

And watch this space for a post from Belinda Phipps, who'll be guest-blogging soon on behalf of the NCT.



Last updated: 16-Apr-2013 at 12:19 PM