It’s hard to think of a baby being violent or destructive, but the seeds of violence may be planted before a child is born, according to research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.
A study carried out there and reported last fall in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests that attention to health factors during prenatal development could prevent violence in later life. Citing recent research demonstrating a biological basis of crime, article author and Penn nursing assistant professor Jianghong Liu explains, “‘Biological’ does not mean only genetic factors, but also health factors, such as nutritional deficiency and lead exposure, which influence biological processes.”
Dr. Liu’s study emphasizes the prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal periods, which are critical times for both a child’s neurodevelopment and for environmental modifications. Among the early health risk factors Dr. Liu identifies are prenatal and postnatal nutrition, lead exposure, tobacco use during pregnancy, maternal depression and stress, birth complications, traumatic brain injury, and child abuse.
Dr. Liu’s research indicates that identifying early health risk factors is an important first step in preventing childhood aggression and teenage delinquency, which have been shown to lead to violence in adulthood. Says Dr. Liu, “As a society we should invest in better health care for early life—as early as a growing fetus—in order to minimize their health risk factors for violence.”
What Price Suds??
One specific thing expectant parents can do — ideally even before they conceive — is to reconsider the products they use, which may be as important as the foods they eat. New research suggests that a common ingredient in shampoo — diethanolamine (DEA) — interferes with normal brain development in mice fetuses. And while researchers urge caution regarding “undue alarm” — more research is needed to clarify these initial findings — it seems to me erring on the side of safety rather than risk might be the way to go, when it’s only a bit of extra mindfulness choosing personal care products we’re talking about! (DEA is also found in hand soaps, hairsprays and sunscreens.)
The breathtakingly intricate cascade of embryonic cell growth and differentiation followed by critical fetal developmental milestones I describe in Parenting for Peace take place in a context of environmental information. Evidently the information coming from some of our most “innocent” habits, like shampooing with a DEA-containing product, corrupts healthy brain development. Don’t be scared, be aware!!
When Womb Life Includes Violence
A German research team asked twenty-five mothers whether they had suffered extreme stress caused by abuse from boyfriends or husbands while they were pregnant, and then rated their emotional level. They then monitored the behavior of a particular gene in their children, aged nine to nineteen. The gene — for the glucocorticoid receptor — is involved in the brain’s response to stress. The researchers found that the gene was far less active in children whose mothers were victims of domestic abuse when they were pregnant. Study author Helen Gunter said: “It changes the way that people respond to stress and they may have a reduced ability to respond to stress.”
Carmine Pariante, of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London, said: “This paper confirms that the early foundation years start at minus nine months. We have known for some time that maternal stress and depression during pregnancy induce a unique response in the offspring, by affecting children’s behavior well into adolescence and children’s ability to modulate their own stress response. This confirms that pregnancy is uniquely sensitive to a challenging maternal psychosocial environment — much more than, for example, after the baby is born. As we and others have been advocating, addressing maternal stress and depression in pregnancy is a clinically and socially important strategy.”
That Precious Hippocampus
It’s interesting to note that the area of the mice brains whose development is impaired by DEA found in shampoo and other personal care products is the hippocampus — most commonly associated with memory function. During my doctoral program I found research showing that in rats, greater maternal care and grooming of pups resulted in decreased cell death in the hippocampus, which is a good thing.
Just a few months ago news broke that this neuro-protective maternal-care finding has now been replicated in humans: an article with the breathtakingly (seemingly) self-evident title, “Mom’s Love Good for Child’s Brain” reported that school-age children whose mothers nurtured them early in life have brains with a larger hippocampus, a key structure involved in yes, memory — but also very important to learning and response to stress. (It is part of the complex circuitry devoted to what I call “peacemaker” capacities, such as self-regulation, self-reflection, empathy and emotional flexibility.)
As I shared in an earlier post about protecting children from so-called “toxic stress,” lead author of the maternal care study, Joan L. Luby, professor of child psychiatry said, “This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings.” “I think the public health implications suggest that we should pay more attention to parents’ nurturing, and we should do what we can as a society to foster these skills because clearly nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development.”
Seeding Peace from the Very Beginning
Indeed, on later development of individuals… of communities… of nations… races… and ultimately, of our shrinking, shared world. World peace doesn’t spring fully formed. It begins with womb peace. Then birth peace. Then infant peace. Mommy-and-Daddy peace, teacher peace and so on, rippling outward.
We can shape it with something as mundane as our daily shower, and as profound as our rapport with others, with ourselves, with Life.
Navigating Stress in Pregnancy (Pregnancy is “Nature’s Head Start” Program!)