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The mystery of pregnancy and birth

PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH - SOME SURPRISING FACTS

by Lena Mengle
February 1998

That girl babies chatter away in the womb more than boys is one of the oddities discovered recently by medical research.

And that the process of giving birth may protect against cancer is something to cheer a woman during those long hours of pain.

Pregnancy, birth and the development of new life remain among the mysteries of biology.

Thousands of years of experience ought to have made humanity pretty familiar with the process. Yet new discoveries flood in all the time - and each one serves to emphasise that doctors and scientists barely know the half of it.

The reports collected here come from the files of Englemed Health News and include some of the recent more surprising findings about pregnancy and childbirth. it also includes some material pre-dating the launch of Englemed in August 1997.

Thousands of years of midwifery experience It is not all good news. Sometimes the joys of motherhood are tempered by unforeseen side-effects. And time and again research emphasises that the health of a mother during pregnancy makes all the difference to the health of her children later in life.

Sometimes simple things may affect a baby's chance of survival. Not smoking is straightforward enough but not drinking coffee too may be hard.

Or perhaps not. "Not many women can manage to drink that much coffee during pregnancy," one doctor said to me.

And there may be precautions that well organised parents can take. Apparently some manage things to ensure the happy event does not happen at Christmas.

But do many people think of staying clear of the summer holidays - when fresh-faced junior doctors may be sparsely supervised by holidaying senior staff?

This is by no means a complete guide to the state of modern obstetrics. Even with modern science nothing can replace those thousands of years of experience gained by women and the midwives who have cared for them.

Does the stork really bring babies?

Contents of this page

PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH - SOME SURPRISING FACTS - by Lena Mengle
Steering a Safe Course - by Lena Mengle (Pregnancy and Childbirth page one
A baby born - a happy ending most of the time Birth time may jeopardise baby
Gloom-busters safe during pregnancy
Birth leftovers haunt women
Birth shields against cancer
Coffee threat to baby
Girl babies chatter in womb
Womb Treatment for Blood Disease
Morning Sickness link to Cancer
Smoke wrecks boys' behaviour
Baby AIDS Mystery

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Birth time may jeopardise baby

February 27th 1998

Giving birth during a holiday season could double the risk of the baby dying, doctors have revealed.

Giving birth at night-time also doubles the risk, a research team from Wales, UK, reveal in the British Medical Journal.

The reason, according to the doctors from the University of Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff, is that these are times when staff are most tired and stressed.

The doctors, led by Dr Patrick Cartlidge, examined the time of birth of 79 Welsh babies who died because of breathing difficulties at birth during a three year period. There were a total of 107,000 births.

23 of the babies died during the British holiday months of July and August.

The authors write: "One of the more plausible explanations for intrapartum related deaths being associated with birth during the night is a reduced availability of skilled and experienced staff at this time."

They add: "Shifts need to be carefully designed to avoid an excessive disruption of circadian rhythms and consequent fatigue. In addition, greater supervision by senior staff may be required at night and during summer months."

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Gloom-busters safe during pregnancy

February 27th 1998

Pregnant women can safely take new anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac while pregnant, doctors have suggested.

Canadian doctors studied the effect of taking the drugs on more than 500 pregnant women.

The trial at The Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, was begun after women found they were getting pregnant while taking the new drugs known as SSRIs - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Their results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, show that taking the drugs was not linked to any increase in birth defects.

Half the women in the study were taking the new anti-depressants while half were not.

The doctors found no difference between the two groups in birth weights or the number of weeks at which babies were born.

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Birth leftovers haunt women

February 20th 1998

Left-over cells from pregnancy may cause disease many years later, doctors said today.

Cells may provoke auto-immune disease, according to The Lancet.

Auto-immune diseases are believed to be caused when a person's immune system runs amok. Diseases such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes may be of this type.

The new finding links fetal cells to an unpleasant disease, scleroderma, which affects the skin but can go on to cause internal disease or even death.

Dr Lee Nelson, a researcher financed by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tested 17 women with scleroderma and looked for evidence that they had retained alien cells from their children.

She used women who had male offspring to make the alien cells easier to find.

She found they had on average ten times as many alien cells as healthy women of the same age.

Dr. Nelson, of the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, said: "Our findings raise the question as to whether some autoimmune diseases are not entirely autoimmune, whether they actually have a component that is non-self. It's really an entirely new paradigm."

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Birth shields against cancer

February 13th 1998

Giving birth may help a woman avoid cervical cancer, doctors have discovered.

Birth through normal labour, rather than caesarian section, can lead to pre-cancerous cells disappearing, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists conference has heard.

Doctors from the University of California-Irvine Medical Center, USA, reported on a study of nearly 450 women over seven years. All the women were found to have pre-cancerous cells during their pregnancy.

The doctors found the cells disappeared or became less dangerous in 68 per cent of the women who had a normal delivery but in none of those who underwent caesarean section.

They suggest that birth may stimulate immune reactions or repair mechanisms that could destroy potentially cancerous cells.

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Coffee threat to baby

January 30th 1998

Heavy consumption of caffeine during pregnancy doubles the risk that a baby will suffer cot death, researchers from New Zealand reveal today.

The findings, reported in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, show that drinking four or more cups of coffee a day during pregnancy may be dangerous for the unborn baby.

Researchers interviewed parents whose babies died suddenly and who are registered in New Zealand's cot death study.

They found that the women were twice as likely to have been heavy drinkers of coffee, tea or cola during pregnancy as other women.

But the conclusions are bound to be controversial - especially since the research dates from before a dramatic decline in cot death rates. That decline was prompted by new advice to mothers not to lay their babies on their fronts.

The authors, from Christchurch, New Zealand, say their findings support previous research linking coffee to problems during pregnancy.

"The importance of this finding is that drinking coffee, tea and cola is a common and easily modifiable behaviour. Mothers therefore have the opportunity to alter this risk factor," the researchers write.

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Baby chatters in womb

Girl babies chatter in womb

December 19th 1997

The patient who heard voices in his head warning that he had a brain tumour is one of the medical oddities reported in the end of year issues of the medical journals.

At first doctors in London, UK, thought the patient had gone mad but subsequent investigation revealed the voices were correct - and saved the patient's life, according to the British Medical Journal.

Meanwhile The Lancet has its own selection of odd medical findings.

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Womb Treatment for Blood Disease

December 5th 1997

An astonishing array of medical developments has been revealed by British doctors at a show-piece conference.

Doctors gathered in the historic Regency seaside town of Brighton for the British Society for Immunology Annual Congress.

Among developments reported were:

Dr Rhodri Jones of the University of Nottingham told the conference how he proposed to use stem cell transplants to treat babies diagnosed with sickle cell disease and thalassaemia as early as 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The diseases can be diagnosed at 12 weeks but, according to Dr Jones, treatment must be carried out before the 15th week - before the baby's immune system develops.

Dr Jones said his team in Nottingham had identified stem cells which almost exclusively produced red blood cells. Stem cells for transplant can be extracted from the umbilical cord.

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Morning Sickness link to Cancer

July 1997

A disturbing link between breast cancer and severe morning sickness has been revealed in the British Journal of Cancer.

The risk of developing breast cancer is doubled in women who experience the worst effects of morning sickness, doctors report.

To reach their conclusion, researchers from the University of Southern California School of Medicine examined the health records of 450 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40 - when the disease is still comparatively rare.

The women who were most likely to go on to get cancer had required medical treatment for nausea during pregnancy.

The researchers suggest that the link between the two illnesses may be a hormone called oestradiol.

They also found that women who managed to breast-feed their babies for 16 months or longer reduced their risk of getting cancer by more than third.

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Smoke wrecks boys' behaviour

July 1997

Women who ignore the advice of their doctors and puff away at cigarettes during pregnancy are storing up trouble for themselves, doctors have claimed.

If they give birth to a boy, by the time he is seven the child may well have developed a severe conduct disorder.

The finding, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, may be open to criticism since it is based on research among children who had been referred to psychiatrists with behaviour problems.

Psychiatrists in Chicago and Pittsburgh found that 80 per cent of the boys they were seeing from smoking mothers had ingrained misbehaviour problems - including arson, sadism, sexual abuse, kleptomania and a simple inability to tell the truth - and all before the age of 13.

Amongst other children in their clinics, just 50 per cent had such severe problems.

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Baby AIDS Mystery

May 1997

The extent to which babies are at risk of contracting HIV, the AIDS virus, from their mothers is a mystery.

A US project reported in Nature Medicine has served to deepen the mystery.

Researchers set out to establish whether the level of infection in the mother - known as viral load - made any difference to the baby.

The answer was that it made only a slight difference. Even a low level of infection put a baby at risk. Equally babies born to highly infected mothers stood a chance of escaping the virus.

More baby mysteries The findings are likely to intensify efforts to find out how babies manage to shrug off maternal infection. The answer could give the key to promising new therapies.


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