Since the placenta cannot filter out extremely small disease carriers, such as viruses, children can be born with malaria, measles, chicken pox, mumps, syphilis, or other venereal diseases that have been transmitted from the mother.
Rubella is the most widespread of the viruses that have a teratogenic effect. If a pregnant woman contracts rubella in the first three months of pregnancy, she is likely to give birth to a child with a congenital abnormality such as heart disease, cataracts, deafness, or mental retardation. Interestingly, there is not a direct relationship between the severity of the disease in the mother and its effect on the fetus. For example, women who have had mild attacks of rubella have given birth to babies with severe abnormalities.
Although rubella might be the most widespread disease, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is by far the most frightening and the one that has received the most publicity. The vast majority of children with AIDS contracted the disease sometime between early pregnancy. The disease is usually transmitted from the mother through the uterus during pregnancy or is acquired by the off-spring at birth.
Toxemia is a frightening condition that is potentially fatal for the mother and the fetus. It is characterized by high blood pressure, swelling, and weight gain due to a build-up of fluid in the body tissues, and the presence of protein in the mother's urine. In severe cases the woman may go into convulsions or coma, placing a tremendous strain on her, which is carried over to the fetus. Women with toxemia frequently give birth to premature babies or to babies smaller than average for their gestational age. Like many other types of blood-pressure disorders, however, toxemia can be treated through medication and diet.
Anoxia is a condition in which the brain of the baby does not receive enough oxygen to allow it to develop properly. Anoxia can cause certain forms of epilepsy, mental deficiency, cerebral palsy, and behavior disorders. If the amount of brain damage is not too severe, however, it may be possible to compensate for the disorder to some extent. Epilepsy can often be controlled with drugs, for instance, and many children with cerebral palsy can learn to control their affected muscles.
Just as other aspects of physical health are important, so is the mother's diet. While physicians and researchers have long realized that pregnancy puts additional demands on the mother's body, they used to assume that the fetus' nutritional needs would be met first, even at the mother's expense.
The current opinion, however, is that the prenatal development of the fetus and its growth and development after birth are directly related to maternal diet. Women who follow nutritionally sound diets during pregnancy give birth to babies of normal or above-normal size. Their babies are less likely to contract bronchitis, pneumonia, or colds during early infancy and have better developed teeth and bones. The mothers have fewer complications during pregnancy and, on the average, spend less time in labor. The less time in labor, the easier the birth and the less stress the mother and child experience.
But if the mother's diet is low in certain vitamins and minerals when she is pregnant, the child may suffer from specific weaknesses. Insufficient iron may lead to anemia in the infant, and a low intake of calcium may cause poor bone formation. If there is an insufficient amount of protein in the mother's diet, the baby may be smaller than average and may suffer from mental retardation, with almost 20 percent fewer brain cells.
Chemicals (over-the-counter and prescribed pharmaceuticals as well as illegal substances) can cause a wide range of congenital abnormalities that account for about 10 percent of birth defects. The severity of the abnormality depends on the amount of the...