Fetal Programming

The Basics of Fetal Programming

Have you ever wondered how the behavior of a pregnant person can impact the developing fetus? What happens if someone drinks a lot? Eats lots of cake? Spends more time smoking than exercising? These are the type of questions that led to the idea of fetal programming. This concept refers to the idea that various factors in the environment that a fetus is exposed to in the womb can determine the life that a fetus will live after birth. Similar to how a computer is programmed to carry out certain instructions, a fetus is being programmed in the womb to carry out a certain type of life. This may seem far fetched in some ways. However, most people who are pregnant hear from their doctors that they should take a vitamin, drink lots of water and exercise. These are all factors that contribute to the programming of the fetus and help it to live a healthy life for years after birth. Similarly, negative exposure can decrease the lifespan that a fetus will ultimately have.

Origins of Fetal Programming

The concept of fetal programming arose from research by Dr. David Barker in the 1980s while working at the University of Southampton. His work in this area is referred to as The Barker Hypothesis or Thrifty Phenotype. Barker thought that a if a fetus was exposed to a poor nutrition environment based on the mother’s poor eating habits, the fetus would adapt or change so that it developed all essential organs in a low resource condition. Then upon birth and throughout life when the child or future adult faced higher nutrition environments, the person would be at risk of disease – such as metabolic syndrome – because normal nutrition was perceived as excess by the person. Barker also thought that certain hormones, such as those involved in stress, could impact the future life of the fetus after birth.

Types of Fetal Programming

More than forty years after Barker’s original work, fetal programming has developed with more researchers identifying environmental factors that impact the developing fetus. There are now three main types of fetal programming identified. The first type focuses on environmental exposures that impact fetal development and lead to a greater risk of disease later in life. For example, the pancreas might develop in a way that prevents them from producing as much insulin they normally produce. Another type of fetal programming is when genetic changes occur that impact the risk of disease. Different types of toxins and some foods might lead to a changes in DNA that in turn affect cells and organs and rates of disease. Another type of change is called epigenetic. This refers to some environmental factors that affects the current fetus and future generations too. For example, changes to the uterus of the current fetus by some environmental factor can affect the next generation. Sometimes risk for cancer or other disease can be spread across generations based on environmental exposure that occurs.

Examples of Fetal Programming

There are numerous examples of fetal programming. One example occurred in the Netherlands in the 1940s when a severe famine decreased the level of nutrition that pregnant women and other people received. The children born to these women ended up being at greater risk of diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. These diseases then affected the life expectancy of children born to these mothers. Another example is associated with the hormone cortisol, commonly viewed as the stress hormone. If women are under great stress in life due to discrimination, excessive workload in their job, or stress at home (i.e. domestic violence), they will produce large amounts of cortisol. This hormone can then impact the growth of the fetus. Different aspects of the brain structure of a fetus can be impacted. Toxins like tobacco, illicit drugs, and alcohol can also affect a fetus. Alcohol is associated with a well known set of illnesses name fetal alcohol syndrome disorders. This set of disorders leads to abnormal functioning of the metabolic system of a fetus after birth and other abnormalities. Smoking can also lead to various abnormalities in babies such as low birth weight, early or preterm birth and decreased lung development.

Perry Payne
Dr. Perry Payne is a public health practitioner and scholar with expertise in quality of care, health equity, prescription drug policy, and health care ethics. He has over ten years of experience as a freelance health care/medical writer and editor. His full-time work experience includes working as a professor and researcher in universities, serving as a federal government official, and a brief stint working for healthcare technology companies.

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