The developing unborn baby is being studied today in ways that were not possible a short time ago. Increased sophistication in technology, such as ultrasound imaging, has allowed us to examine the developing organism early in development and with great detail. Newer technology, such as the MRI, is giving us an even more accurate, intricate description of the developing fetus (Fetal MRI, 2004). Where are we going with this technology? Hopefully we will see increased corrections on damaged fetuses. This is in the hands of the medical and science community. For the rest of the general community, the increased understanding of the developing organism will hopefully lead to a greater awareness of the influences in the environment that affect prenatal conditions. In this essay I will discuss some of these factors. I will also discuss some of the difficulties in finding pure cause and effect results with these environmental influences. I will conclude this essay with a personal assessment on what we ought to do to protect individuals from the environmental risks that exist. The environment begins to influence the individual as soon as he or she is conceived. As the zygote undergoes mitosis, the new cells become part of the mother’s environment (Cole, Cole, & Lightfoot, 2005, p. 73). Although the developing organism in the uterus is well protected, it is not completely sheltered. Environmental influences on prenatal development can range from pollution and stress from the outside world to drugs and viruses in the mother’s bloodstream. It is unlikely that a woman can go through pregnancy without experiencing periods of stress. Being under too much stress, however, can influence the developing organism in negative ways (Cole et al, 2005, p. 82). A person who is under a lot of stress produces the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. A pregnant woman who secretes these hormones will pass them through the placenta into the fetus (Cole et al, 2005, p. 82). Some studies show that there is a greater risk of miscarriage and more birth defects if there has been intense stress in early pregnancy (Greenfield, 2004). Other findings show that more The Prenatal Environment of the Developing Organism 2 premature and low birth weight babies are born to women who experience severe stress during pregnancy (Cole et al, 2005, p. 83). A woman’s attitude can also play a significant role in the development of an unborn baby. The study conducted by Henry David in Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s and 1970’s shows an example of this connection (as cited in Cole et al, 2005, p. 82). The mothers in the study who had negative attitudes toward their unborn children gave birth to babies that weighed less and were more likely to need medical care (82). Newly emerging research is also showing that having a positive mental attitude is a colossal protector in coping with stress (Raison, 2008). Not only does a positive attitude lead to a better chance of producing a healthy newborn, it also can be used to combat the inevitable stresses that will occur during pregnancy. A pregnant woman is essentially eating for two. The nutrients from the food eaten by the mother are passed down to the unborn baby (Cole et al, 2005, p. 83). It is essential that a pregnant woman eats a balanced diet consisting of many vitamins and minerals, including supplementation of folic acid, calcium and iron (Cole et al, 2005, p. 83). Unborn babies are affected by their mother’s application of nutrition in their diet. This nutritional influence may be bigger than previously thought. The fetus may be affected more than the mother with lack of nourishment (Willis, 2010). The performance of the placenta can possibly be affected by a mother’s lacking in proper nutritional intake (Willis, 2010). Studies also indicate that mothers who are malnourished or undernourished are more likely to have miscarriages or have low birth weight babies (Cole et al, 2005, p. 84). Socioeconomic status is another factor that can influence a developing organism. Pregnant women who have low incomes are more likely to have babies that are born prematurely or suffer birth defects (Cole et al, 2005, p. 84). There are many reasons why socioeconomic status may play a role in The Prenatal Environment of the Developing Organism 3 influencing the prenatal environment. Low income may lead to malnourishment, lack of education, unhealthy homes, and overall stress. All of these factors do play a role in the development of the fetus. Though we may not know the exact reason socioeconomic status affects the development of the newborn baby, we do know there is a correlation. The environmental agents that produce abnormalities in the developing fetus are called teratogens. Teratogens are most dangerous during the first two weeks following conception, and can produce devastating effects on forming organs. The teratogens I will discuss are drugs, disease, radiation and pollution. Many drugs appear not to affect the unborn baby, some affect it a little bit, and some drugs affect it significantly. Many prescriptions drugs are considered to be safe to take for a pregnant woman. Unfortunately, many were considered safe at a time they actually were far from being so. The sedative thalidomide was shown to produce deformities in many children who had mothers that took this drug (Cole et al, 2005, p. 87). Since then, many other prescription drugs have shown to cause abnormalities in the fetus (Cole et al, 2005, p. 87). Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol are drugs that appear to affect the fetus when taken in large doses (Cole et al, 2005, p. 87). Caffeine may increase the chance of spontaneous abortion or having a baby with a low birth weight (Cole et al, 2005, p. 87). Tobacco has been shown to increase the chance of spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and neonatal death (Cole et al, 2005, p. 87). Alcohol seems to have the greatest potential of harming the fetus. A pregnant woman who consumes large quantities of alcohol runs the risk of having a baby with serious birth defects or suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome (Cole et al, 2005, p. 87). Expectant mothers who are addicted to cocaine, heroin, or methadone cause problems for the developing fetus. Babies from cocaine-addicted mothers have a greater chance of being stillborn, premature, low birth weight, or suffer from birth defects or strokes (Cole et al, 2005 p. 88) Babies from heroin or meth addicted mothers face a huge, uphill struggle The Prenatal Environment of the Developing Organism 4 from the start. They are born addicted themselves, and if they survive, may have long term developmental issues (as cited in Cole et al, 2005, p. 89). Other teratogens that can impact the development of a fetus in a negative way include disease, radiation, and pollution. Certain microorganisms can get to the fetus through the placenta or from passage through the birth canal (Cole et al, 2005, p. 89). There are a variety of diseases that can affect the development of a newborn baby, many causing serious developmental issues (Cole et al, 2005 p. 89). Radiation exposure can also lead to abnormalities, or even death, in developing babies (Cole et al, 2005, p. 91). Substantial evidence of this can be seen from the effects of the atomic blasts in Japan during World War II (Cole et al, 2005, p. 91). Many of the chemicals that are produced in man-made operations can also reach the developing organism through the placenta (Cole et al, 2005, p. 92). Although the effects of many of these chemicals are unknown, there is enough evidence out there to show that pollution can affect the developing organism in a negative way (Cole et al, 2005, p. 92). We know that there are many things that affect the development of an unborn baby. It is quite difficult, though, to isolate specific consequences from each factor. Many of the factors may be overlapping, which makes it hard to determine exact cause and effect relationships. There is definitely a correlation between stress of a pregnant woman, and the health of the unborn baby. If there is unhealthy development with a fetus from a stressed out mother, it is difficult to ascertain how much of this improper development came from the stress factor. This same mother may be stressed out because she is impoverished and deficient in food that is nutritious. She also may be led to smoke and drink due to her stress, and may lack the education required to make proper, healthy choices. All of these factors may interact with one another to affect the fetus in a negative way. To identify the specific factors, and assign a causal percentage to them is by no means an easy task. The Prenatal Environment of the Developing Organism 5 There are many hazards that exist in the environment that can potentially cause harm to a developing fetus. How can pregnancy be protected from these threats? The development that occurs during the prenatal stage is very important for the future development of a child. We therefore need to do everything possible to assure the best chances of healthy fetal development during a pregnancy. We are living in an age where we are well informed about the effects of pollution and certain chemicals on living things, including the fetus. We must use this knowledge to make wise decisions concerning manufacturing, energy, agriculture, and transportation, to name a few. Decisions that are based on pure economic outcomes can lead to devastating consequences on the environment, ultimately affecting unborn babies. We can’t eliminate pollution, but we are in control of maintaining a healthy environment. Education is crucial in helping to minimize many prenatal anomalies. It is crucial that all parents-to-be are given an opportunity to attend prenatal classes. These classes should be subsidized by the government if the parents are not able to afford it. I believe there should also be more emphasis put on prenatal education in our school curriculum. A solid understanding of the prenatal environment is important for all people, and should be ascertained before an individual goes through this experience herself. A special effort has to be made to assure that high-risk groups are specifically targeted for education. It is in these groups where there are often many overlapping factors that play a role in the development of the unborn baby. There will have to be extra government funding provided to ensure the educational message gets to those in the high-risk groups, as many of these people do not get this information through the basic education or health funding. We do not know what percentage of prenatal abnormalities could be eliminated by education, but it is one environmental factor that we can control. The Prenatal Environment of the Developing Organism 6 One other area where we have some control on the environment of the developing organism is in the area of social support. Some children are born with many risk factors that can increase their chances of negative outcomes (Cole et al, 2005 p. 257). Some of these risk factors are the results of prenatal conditions (Cole et al, 2005, p. 258) and seem to put the child into an uphill battle right from the start. Research shows that these kids are not automatically destined for failure, and therapy and good experiences in later life can help children become resilient (Cole et al, 2005, p. 266). Parents, teachers and other adults can foster children’s resiliency in areas of attitude, emotion, feeling of self worth and competence, and physical health. A healthy prenatal environment helps unborn children achieve a healthy weight, reach full term, and develop healthy organs. This means for the future that these children are less likely to suffer from medical or learning problems, and thus increase resiliency. We need to start with proper prenatal care and add proper therapy and social care, where needed, as a child develops through life. The developing organism is vulnerable to many environmental factors. The uterus is generally a sheltered home for the developing baby, but is not an infallible one. The unborn baby can be affected by a multitude of outside influences. Some of these influences minimally affect the organism, while others can potentially damage or destroy the baby. It is vital that the pregnant mother becomes aware of these potential factors, and is encouraged to make wise decisions concerning the prenatal health of her baby. It is also important that social supports are put in place for the mother and the child during the pregnancy and after, to minimize the risk factors that can lead to negative outcomes for the child.
The Prenatal Environment of the Developing Organism 7 References
Cole, M, Cole, S.R., & Lightfoot, C. (2005). The Development of Children (5th ed.). New York, NY:
Fetal MRI: Prenatal MRI of the Fetal Body. (2004). Retrieved August 21, 2010 from
Greenfield, Marjorie. (2004, July). Stress and Pregnancy: What are the effects?. Retrieved August 21,
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Raison, Charles. (2008, February). Can a Positive Mental Attitude Really Help Me Cope With Stress?.
Retrieved August 22, 2010 from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/StressCoping/story?id=4667844
Willis, Judith L. (2010). All About Eating For Two. Retrieved August 20, 2010 from