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Book Review: Nine Crucial Months

Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives

by Annie Murphy Paul

It’s not often that a book comes around that makes us shout, “EVERY PARENT-TO-BE SHOULD READ THIS!” but Origins is one of those once-in-a-lifetime reads. Annie Murphy Paul is a journalist and author who chronicles the growing body of evidence on fetal development from conception through birth while documenting her own progress through pregnancy.

Over a nine-month period, the author talks to researchers in the emerging field of fetal origins research to find out how environmental influences—sound, pollution, chemical additives, prescription drugs—can impact the developing fetus. And the stress itself may not be under the mother’s control—a hurricane or earthquake, for instance, have been found to have enduring effects even into adult life. Research has begun to show that the womb might not be the snug, protected space it once was assumed to be, with studies documenting the long-term effects of maternal stress on the child’s brain development, for instance.

In addition to inheriting the possible effects of stress, Annie Murphy Paul also acknowledges the learning that occurs before a child is even born in her TED Talk below.

We Are More Than Our Genes

Annie Murphy Paul’s nine-month tracking of the science reveals that it isn’t only genes that determine who we are: Traumatic experiences in one generation may bring on physical or mental health conditions in offspring. In studies of children of Holocaust survivors, for instance, researchers have found a prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in survivors’ children—that are clearly not genetic—even into adulthood. The same transgenerational effect is found for the children of 9/11. The implications are causing a reevaluation of emergency evacuation plans for natural disasters.

Environmental conditions during pregnancy may also impact the fetus’s biological development. The offspring of a mother living in a time of famine is, in utero, biologically prepared to encounter famine-like conditions in childhood. If the family later moves, or growing conditions yield abundant crops, the child born under these circumstances may suffer as an adult from obesity and the incumbent health threats of diabetes and heart disease.

The author examines everything from folk wisdom (mothers correctly intuiting to a high degree whether their baby is a boy or girl) to ongoing studies at the National Institutes of Health and Project Viva, drawing from a wide range of fields including anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, public health and nutrition science. While scientists themselves acknowledge there is much still unknown, what emerges in these studies of the earliest stages of life is a rich picture of prenatal development.

One note of caution: Pregnant women and their spouses today are already feeling pressured and uncertain about how they can create healthy beginnings for their babies, and the answers are not always easy. Coffee or no coffee? Will one glass of wine hurt my baby? What is an appropriate weight gain during pregnancy? Taken out of context, the findings in this book could be misused to put pregnant women under even greater pressure—a development that the author herself cautions would do more harm than good.

As her pregnancy progresses, Paul shares her own wonders and doubts about how to offer her baby the best beginnings. While much is still to be learned about how we become who we are, Origins offers a great start.

LEArn More:

“How Your Child Got Her Brain,” by Ruben Baler

“What Is Your Baby Telling You?” by Kelly Schmitt Gouss

Related Reading:

“How the First Nine Months Shape the Rest of Your Life,” by Annie Murphy Paul, Time magazine