New Study Says Babies Aren’t a Blank Slate

how to give your baby a head start even before conceptionThe moment I learned I was pregnant, I started following all of the “rules”—making healthier choices and adhering to all the doctor recommendations in order to give my son a strong start in life.

That’s all well and good, but a new study published in the journal Science says giving kids that strong start actually begins much earlier—before they’re even conceived. 

Researchers found that during conception, the egg and sperm contribute not only genetic material, but also stored environmental information. For those of us who aren’t scientists, this basically means that parents’ lifestyle choices have an influence on their kiddos even before that egg and sperm come together—potentially leading to a higher risk of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, and immune dysfunction.

Professor Sarah Robinson, one of the study’s authors, explained it this way:

“People used to think that it didn’t matter, because a child represented a new beginning, with a fresh start. The reality is, we can now say with great certainty that the child doesn’t quite start from scratch—they already carry over a legacy of factors from their parents’ experiences that can shape development in the fetus and after birth.”

And here’s the kicker:

“Depending on the situation, we can give our children a burden before they’ve even started life.”

Ugh. Another guilt trip for moms?

Not surprisingly, reading about this research left me feeling a bit gloomy, and I originally planned on titling this post, “How We’re Screwing Up Our Kids Even Before They’re Conceived.”

But then I thought, no, this doesn’t have to be negative news. 

Looked at in a positive light, this research indicates that couples who are intentionally trying to get pregnant can take steps now to give their embryo a head start in life—steps like eating a healthy diet, taking pre-natal vitamins, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, quitting smoking, and managing stress levels. 

More good news: The environmental signals are transmitted to the fetus through both the egg and the sperm, which means that Daddy’s healthy (or unhealthy) behaviors also leave a legacy on your little one. 

It often feels like the responsibility for baby’s health lies solely with mom and her choices, so sharing the burden is a relief!

In the end, I’m concluding that this research supports a concept most parents eventually learn and accept: that when we take the time and put in the effort to take care of ourselves, it only makes us better parents.

Now we know that tenet holds true even before we see those two blue lines. 

What’s your reaction to this research showing babies are affected by parents’ choices even before conception? Do you find it empowering or guilt-inducing? 

image via Ben_Kerckx


27 responses to “New Study Says Babies Aren’t a Blank Slate”

  1. I love this. My husband and I love eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains etc. Overall, we lead very healthy and active lifestyles. We do enjoy beer and wine, which could be a negative? Did it say anything about that? 😉

    • Agreed! I went to see my doctor when we were ready to start trying to conceive to make sure I was in good health, but I realize many people don’t…especially not dads!

  2. I work with faculty from the School of Public Health – folks who study BPA and toxins and genetic polymorphisms, etc. You don’t want to start thinking about everything out there that can harm you or your kids that’s simply a part of us already!

  3. This was common sense to us when we were preparing for our children. We talked about it, and I have great memories of it.

    Being thoughtful as parents helps us to connect to our children, for they are one of our main priorities.

  4. I agree with the findings – it’s empowering to know that we can positively influence our child. However, we also need to keep in mind that sometimes at conception things go wrong – and no fault of our own.

    I do a lot of work with families with sick children – and so many of them wish to know why these congenital defects happen… and it’s important to know that we should give our babies the best chance at life even before conception – but it doesn’t mean that things can’t still go wrong. It’s a balancing act of empowerment and guilt.

    I like your article – thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for sharing that, Tove. You’re absolutely right that there are many, many factors that are totally outside of our control, and parents shouldn’t feel guilty or responsible for that.

  5. I find it both empowering and guilt inducing! As I read it, my brain immediately began to dredge up memories of college days and times when having kids was not on my radar. However, I do love the perspective that it’s not all about ME and what I did when I was pregnant.

  6. Not before conception but definitely after, I worried about Des. I was so anxious during that time and we were moving and I was a mess. I thought he’d come out anxious like I did as a baby.
    So far, not even remotely. I know it could be in there, silent and waiting, but I don’t worry about this kid so much.

    • I try to remind myself that if my child did pick up any of my anxious tendencies, the best thing I can do is model and teach healthy coping skills.

  7. There was a whole issue of Science dedicated to babies. My boss he’d let me read his copy when he was done. Very interesting research that says sperm and egg pass-on environmental information too. Doesn’t make me feel guilty at all. Makes me feel like no matter how bad I “mess up” like giving baby sweets or TV, she’s kinda already coded into a healthy lifestyle because that’s what we practice most of the time.

  8. Yes, this makes perfect sense. I’ve even recently read about scientists demonstrating a link between addictive behaviors in grandparents and great-grandparents and future generations.

    I think parents do have to mindful that kids will mimic what you DO, even more so than what you say. So if I want a healthy eater, or a kid that moves, or a child that is polite, I need to model all of those behaviors myself.

    • Very true—there is no better influence than positive parent role modeling! I’m very curious about that link with addictive behaviors, and would love to read more about it. Any chance you could point me in the right direction?

  9. My first reaction was: Ugh. But, I think you did a great job turning it around to a positive. We should take good care of ourselves, pregnant or not. I don’t know if I’m going to have any more kids, but it’s good info to have, nonetheless.

  10. I’m actually just semi surprised by this! When my husband and I wanted to have kids, we met up with my future doctor who advised me to start taking prenatal pills 3 months before conception. It’s really the way for the body to shore up on all the vitamins and necessary good stuff for a healthy start.

    That said, there’s no guarantee with anything. A couple doing that could end up with a sick child, and vice versa. So if it means stressing out a couple, then it’s much better to feel relaxed than to stress 🙂

    • Good point about the pre-natal vitamins! I had the same experience. And I completely agree—there’s no guarantee no matter what, and stress is just as harmful as anything else.

  11. I am not overly surprised by this. I remember my OB class from nursing school and how our teacher discussed that you should start taking prenatal vitamins well before you get pregnant. It makes sense that other healthy lifestyle choices would have an impact too.

    Hopefully doctors will start addressing this. It makes sense, as Nina said above, for your doctor to give you some advice BEFORE you get pregnant. In our case, our oldest was born with a cleft lip and palate. That particular birth defect happens between the 4th and 6th week of pregnancy. Some people don’t even know they are pregnant until that time frame has passed. I am a Type 1 Diabetic. I was seeing a doctor who knew I was wanting to get pregnant and yet he didn’t inform me of the extra things I needed to do as a woman with that disease (tips to tighten control, 4000mcg of folic acid, etc). I was informed AFTER finding out I was pregnant. So while it was helpful with my two following pregnancies – no birth defects, yay! – I wish that doctor would have taken the time to clue me in beforehand.
    “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” as the saying goes…

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Vanessa! It really does show the importance of getting that advice BEFORE rather than after conception.

  12. Great article! I totally believe that. I have always been quite certain that the contaminated well water that I was drinking in farmland USA (completely UNKNOWINGLY of course!) was one of the contributing factors to my son being diagnosed with leukemia as a preschooler. (He is fine now btw…10 years post diagnosis with no signs of cancer! Hallelujah!)

  13. To answer your question, neither. Regardless of what the doctors say, I’m still going to live my life the way I want. Did I quit smoking and eat better when I found out that I was pregnant? Yes, because I didn’t want to HARM my child while she was inside me. I think it’s good information for those planning on conceiving, but sometimes things just don’t work out that way and unless you are making a lifestyle change, I think it’s pointless. If you are only doing it to have a “healthy baby” then your crappy decisions after they are born are going to affect them anyway. It’s interesting information, but I think it is more about practicality for the couple as a lifestyle and not just about conceiving.

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