When planning to bring a child into this world, the one thing that most people wish for is a healthy baby. Unfortunately, the rates of chronic health problems in children are rising. For example, the rates of autism have increased from 1 in 2,220 children in 1982 to 1 in 50 children in 2013, based on research from the Center for Disease Control. Additionally, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is also on the rise, with approximately 9.5% of American children affected. Other problems, such as asthma and food allergies in children, are also on the rise.
However, even with these frightening statistics, there is hope. This hope comes from understanding the risk factors and making appropriate changes to improve the health of your future baby. These include safe and easily doable changes.
The key factor is to begin implementing changes before pregnancy. The preconception period (the time period before pregnancy) is the best time to make diet changes and take supplements to enhance health. It is also an optimal time to evaluate your overall health, improve your digestion and remove toxic chemicals from your home. Many of these changes can improve the chances of getting pregnant and having a healthier pregnancy.
Although beginning before pregnancy is the ideal time to work on improving your health, changes made during pregnancy–and even in the early years of your child’s life–can have a positive impact on his or her health. The important thing is to educate yourself about the risk factors that we know can contribute to the development of autism and ADHD. Taking action is vital.
- eat organic food
- take a fish oil supplement
- consistently take a prenatal vitamin before beginning a pregnancy
- supplement with good probiotic bacteria
- have your thyroid hormones checked before pregnancy
- use cosmetics and creams with harmful chemicals
- allow toxic chemicals into your home
- drink unfiltered water
- keep your cell phone in your pocket or near your pregnant belly
- wait until pregnancy to make important changes in your health
Pesticides on food are neurotoxins, which can harm the development of the nervous system. Studies show that women who are exposed to pesticides during pregnancy have an increased chance of having a child with autism or ADHD. Because a baby in the womb and a young child are very small in size with an immature nervous system, they are more at risk of being harmed by pesticides than a mature adult.
The omega three fatty acids in fish oil, DHA and EPA are important to the development of the nervous system, including vision in children. Because our Western diet is low in seafood, many women do not get enough of these essential nutrients.
Due to a concern over toxins, such as mercury in fish, it is safest to take a supplement of omega three fatty acids or fish oil, instead of trying to get all of these oils from food. The supplement should be from a company that tests their products for mercury and the toxin PCBs. It is important to find a product that is higher in the DHA-type of omega three fats since this is the one most important to the brain. A good dose to aim for is 1000 mg of fish oil with a higher portion of DHA and EPA. While many prenatal vitamins do contain some DHA, the dose is usually too low.
Although this may seem basic, it is critical to begin the prenatal vitamin before pregnancy. A prenatal vitamin has the highest amount of folic acid needed to prevent neural tube defects or defects in the development of the infant’s spinal cord. This is only helpful if taken before most women even know they are pregnant, since the nervous system is formed very early in pregnancy.
In addition, the prenatal vitamin also has higher amounts of other vitamins and minerals, which are low in many women, such as vitamin D, zinc and magnesium. By taking these before pregnancy, a woman has the opportunity to build up her nutrition stores and get healthy before beginning her pregnancy. For example, if a woman is low in zinc, she has the chance to bring her zinc to a normal level before beginning a pregnancy. Zinc is important for fertility and getting pregnant, in addition to being important for the brain development of a child.
Probiotics contain the “good” bacteria that is critical to our digestion and immune systems. In fact, about 70% of our immune system is in our digestive system. Antibiotics can destroy this good bacteria, and most of us are exposed to antibiotics in food on a daily basis.
An infant is born without any of this good bacteria in their intestines. Consequently, they must get this bacteria from their environment during delivery and via nursing. If a woman doesn’t have this good bacteria herself, she can’t give it to her child. Since this good probiotic bacteria is very important for both strong digestive and immune systems, an infant is more at risk for health problems.
About 70% of children with autism have problems with their digestive systems, and many have problems with their immune systems, such as allergies and frequent infections. By helping infants gain the good bacteria early in life, their systems will be stronger and protected from many chronic issues.
Today, we are seeing an increase in women with thyroid disease. Often, this is caused by a decrease in thyroid hormone levels, known as hypothyroid. The problem is that the symptoms are nonspecific, so not all women are diagnosed with the problem. The concern with pregnancy is that adequate thyroid hormones in the mother are critical for proper development and growth of the infant, especially early in pregnancy. The important tests for women to have include TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) and free T4. T4 is the thyroid hormone that directly affects the infant in utero. It is extremely important to treat thyroid disease before pregnancy, so thyroid levels can return to normal during the first trimester.
Most women use an average of 126 different chemicals in their cosmetic products — from makeup and soap to shampoo and creams. Any product used on the skin is absorbed into the skin, and if it is not safe to eat, it is not safe to put on skin. Several of these chemicals, including parabens and phthalates, are endocrine disruptors, which affect the hormones in the body. Research has shown a correlation between a woman’s exposure to phthalates while pregnant and the child’s risk of ADHD and autism. Additionally, parabens are endocrine disruptors, and animal studies show negative effects on the development of the brain, nervous system and social behavior. Be sure to read all labels before use.
BPA or bisphenol A is a type of plastic used in bottles (including baby bottles), dental sealants, can liners and paper receipts. BPA affects estrogen and thyroid hormones, and it hurts the development of the nervous system. Research has shown a correlation between a child’s exposure during pregnancy and emotional and behavioral problems as toddlers. Luckily, as the health consequences of these materials are understood, it is being removed from products.
Tap water can contain many potential chemical contaminants, including chlorine, pesticides and residues from prescription drugs. Because some bottled water comes from the tap, it may not be any safer. The best way to drink pure water is to have a source of filtered water. There are different types of filters, which vary in how much they can filter and in price. Options range from a carbon filter in a pitcher to a reverse osmosis filter installed in your kitchen. The important point is to drink a lot of filtered water.
Our world has radically changed in the last decade in terms of the amount of electromagnetic radiation that surrounds us. This radiation is called EMFs or electromagnetic fields. With the use of cell phones, laptop computers and wifi, we are all surrounded by this electromagnetic radiation. Currently, we do not understand all of the health effects from this radiation, especially on the development of young children. However, since we do know the brain has its own electrical system, the safest bet is to keep EMFs far away from a developing brain. This means keeping those devices as far away from the body as possible.
To have the best chance of having a healthy baby, women must start making changes before they are pregnant. Because a woman’s health is integral to her baby’s health, a healthy mom ultimately leads to a healthy baby.
With the prevalence of autism and ADHD increasing, most people know someone with a child affected by these disorders. The good news is that researchers are studying autism and ADHD, and they are learning more and more about the risk factors. While we still do not understand all of the causes, we have learned a great deal about the modifiable risk factors. Many of these are things that women can do before pregnancy, which can lead to a healthier pregnancy and a healthier baby.