By: Candace Hutchins
Thalidomide was a drug that pregnant women used in the 1960s, to prevent nausea. Around 60% of women that took thalidomide during pregnancy gave birth to children that were missing hands, arms, feet, or legs. The children varied in degree of deformity because of factors such as the amount of thalidomide taken and at what point(s) of the pregnancy it was taken.
We are more aware of what pregnant women should not be exposed to, yet many people do not understand the specific damage teratogens can cause. Teratogens are any environmental factor that causes damage to the fetus during the prenatal period. The extent of damage that teratogen exposure causes depends on the nature of the insult, the dose of exposure, the proximity to a particular period of rapid brain growth, the genetic makeup of the mother and/or child and the quality of the environment.
Nicotine is one of the most well-known teratogens because of the surgeon general’s warning against cigarette smoking during pregnancy. Research shows that prenatal nicotine usage causes miscarriages, lower birth weight, withdrawal symptoms and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Newborns exposed to nicotine often have impaired breathing and heart rates and are at a higher risk for developing asthma, cancer and learning disabilities.
Alcohol is also a well-known teratogen that can cause a wide spectrum of damage. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) causes long-term cognitive effects, organ problems and low-birth weight. Children with FAS have deformed facial features and a small head. In school they often have decreased information processing speed, a lower IQ and make poor grades. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is used to classify the damages of prenatal alcohol exposure without the severity of FAS. FASD can cause a range of physical, mental and behavioral outcomes because alcohol kills cells and stops cell development.
Any over-the-counter, prescription or recreational drug that a mother puts in her body when she is pregnant can pass through the placenta and get to the baby. Babies may be born with a congenital infection or be addicted to the drugs the mother used while she was pregnant. Antibiotics, aspirin, cocaine, heroin, methadone, alcohol, nicotine
Mothers must also protect their children prenatally by being aware of what they eat and also what beauty products they use. Fish, especially larger fish such as Tuna, absorb mercury, which can be harm the baby if the mother consumes it. Chicken, meats and milk are all potentially contaminated with hormones and antibiotics or vegetables washed in pesticides can also cause complications. Beauty products especially hair dyes and nail polish but also certain creams, soaps, shampoos and herbal supplements can be dangerous.
Mothers with diseases or viruses can transmit them to their baby prenatally. It can also damage the baby’s brain to be exposed to any diseases the mother had at any time during the gestation period. Diseases include influenza, rubella, mumps and various infections. Sexually transmitted diseases are also passed down to the embryo such as HIV/AIDS, genital herpes and syphilis.
The mother’s lifestyle while she is pregnant and the infant’s environment during the first few years are crucial to normal brain development. Researchers believe that the timing of malnutrition is an important factor in determining if problems will occur. The brain of a human fetus grows rapidly from the 10th week to the 18th week of pregnancy and it is especially important for the mother to eat nutritious foods during this time (Zillmer, 2008). Other maternal factors include if she is exercising an appropriate amount and watching her nutrition. The level of the mother’s emotional stress, her age and previous births are other environmental factors that can harm the baby.
The bottom line is to be aware of teratogens and the importance of a healthy lifestyle for the duration of pregnancy. Women should not use this as a guide but simply as a reference of factors to be aware of. Women that are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should consult their health care provider about any questionable environmental factor including but not limited prescription or over-the-counter medication, vitamins and herbal supplements, beauty products, food and beverages.