Eating Well: What’s in It for Baby

Think you’ll be undergoing lot of changes during the nine months of pregnancy? Consider what’s happening to your fetus during those 40 weeks. Cells are dividing at an unbelievable rate; organs are forming; the circulatory, digestive, urinary, and other systems are developing; the senses -hearing, sight, taste, and smell—are taking shape. And through your diet, your baby will have to receive all the vitamins, minerals, calories, protein, fluids, and other nutrients necessary for all that growth and development. Though most babies do grow and develop even when their mothers eat a diet that’s only so-so, study after study shows that, on average, healthier diets yield far healthier babies.

Think of healthy eating as one of the best gifts you can give your baby-to-be. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Your diet can affect so many aspects of your baby-to-be’s health, including the following:

Your baby’s brain development.

While the development of most organs is relatively complete midway through pregnancy, your baby’s brain will have its greatest growth spurt during the last trimester. Since protein, calories, and omega-3 fatty acids are particularly crucial to optimal brain development, ensuring an adequate intake of these nutrients becomes even more important in the last months of pregnancy. Even if you find you’ve gained more weight than you would have liked in your first six months, the last trimester will not be the time to cut back. And even if you haven’t been eating particularly well during the early months of pregnancy (many women find that the first trimester queasies keep them from eating anything, never mind eating anything healthy), making a concerted dietary effort in the last trimester will fuel that amazing brain expansion.

Your baby’s personality.

Believe it or not, much of your baby’s personality is being formed in your uterus, partly owing to fetal DNA and partly, according to some studies, because of what you’re eating. Researchers have found that babies born to malnourished mothers smile less and are drowsier compared with babies born to well-nourished mothers. There is also evidence that newborns whose mothers consume enough omega-3 fatty acid during the last trimester exhibit healthier sleep patterns than do other babies (something you’ll definitely appreciate come 3 A.M.).

Your baby’s eating habits.

Research shows that what you eat during pregnancy (and while breastfeeding) affects not only your baby’s health—it also affects your baby’s tastes. Because a fetus can taste and become accustomed to the flavors that make their way from its mother’s meals into the amniotic fluid, a baby’s food preferences can be formed before he or she ever takes a spoonful of solids. In one study, infants whose mothers drank carrot juice while pregnant eagerly lapped up cereal mixed with carrot juice, while infants of mothers who steered clear of the orange stuff were more likely to turn up their little noses at the carrot juice–cereal mixture. The moral of the study: If you’d like your child to eat his broccoli later, you might be well advised to eat yours now. (And since breast milk picks up flavors, too, influencing a nursing baby’s future gastronomic preferences, the same principle holds true during breastfeeding.)

Your baby’s birth weight.

Eating too little (or not eating enough of the right foods) can keep your baby from growing well in the uterus; eating too much can make your baby grow too big, too fast. Babies who are born small for their gestational age stand greater chances of having health problems after delivery than do babies of normal weight. Babies born too large can complicate delivery, making it more likely that an instrument (forceps or vacuum) or surgical (cesarean) delivery will become necessary. Eating just the right amount to maintain a steady and moderate weight gain for you can keep your baby’s weight gain on target.

It’s not only the quantity, but also the quality of the food you eat that can impact how baby weighs in. Inadequate zinc intake is linked to low-birth-weight babies. A diet deficient in folic acid can cause fetal growth restriction (among many other problems). Eating the right amounts of the right types of food can help give baby a good bottom line at delivery.

Your baby’s organ development.

With all those body parts developing from scratch (the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and nervous system, just to name a few), and only nine months in which to accomplish this phenomenal growth, the baby-making factory is working at full-steam, day and night. The raw materials needed to turn a fertilized egg into a fully equipped bouncing baby are supplied by you through what you eat.

Fortunately, those raw materials aren’t hard to come by. Even the average American diet today provides enough of most nutrients to ensure a healthy bouncing baby—and extra-good nutrition can offer extra insurance that your fetus will receive everything it needs to develop well. On the other hand, a diet that’s severely deficient in the right types of nutrients (and such a diet is thankfully rare during pregnancy in this country) increases the risk that a baby may not develop normally.

For instance, a lack of vitamin D and calcium can interfere with proper bone and tooth growth. An inadequate intake of folic acid can result in neural tube defects, such as spina bifida (a condition that has become far less common since folic acid supplementation has become routinely recommended for women of childbearing age).

Possibly, your baby’s long-term health.

Though still in its infancy—and still somewhat controversial—the study of how maternal nutrition during pregnancy affects a baby’s long-term health has provided researchers and mothers-to-be with plenty of food for thought. Some studies have found that a predisposition to certain diseases (such as cancers and schizophrenia) and chronic conditions (such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease) may be programmed while the baby is still developing in the womb, if it received inadequate nutrition during pregnancy. Scientists have found that both babies who are undernourished in the first trimester and those who are overfed in the third trimester may be at greater risk for obesity. Nutrition during pregnancy, say some researchers, not only influences a baby’s health at birth, but also affects his or her health years later, even into adulthood.

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