What to expect when you’re expecting? Crazy headlines about pregnancy risks

Science-ish looks at the news terrifying soon-to-be parents

by Julia Belluz

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With the global population ballooning to seven billion, Science-ish wonders whether journalists around the world are in on a conspiracy to lower birth rates by scaring would-be parents with crazy stories about pregnancy risks. Consider the headlines this week: We learned that “depression in pregnancy can slow a child’s development” and that a mother’s fish and mercury intake is linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity-disorder behaviours in her kids.

This isn’t just the result of a slow news week. Science-ish has been tracking the health stories targeted at expectant parents over the last year, and they have ranged from the silly to the farcical, and always with a dash of fear mongering.

Last September, the BBC reported that eating low-fat yogurt—not the Greek, or half-fat types—during pregnancy may induce asthma and hay fever in children. The Guardian reported on a study that linked a mother’s sleeping position to stillbirths, recommending specifically that she sleep on her left side or else risk having one. Would moms be able to sleep at all after that chilling report? Fox News wrote: “Mother’s hypertension during pregnancy may affect child’s IQ later in life” and that “Women who get pregnant while dieting increase babies’ obesity risk.” And there was no shortage of reporting on the scary chemicals in our environment that can harm wee ones, even before conception. A telling headline from Mother Nature Network: “BPA exposure linked to abnormal egg development.”

In an effort to figure out where and how media reports go so off the rails, Science-ish called the lead author of the new study on mercury, fish consumption, and ADHD behaviours in children. Sharon Sagiv of the Boston University School of Public Health explained that the problem—in the reporting on her study and others—is that research is too often taken out of context, lonely islands isolated from the body of literature on the same subject.

“I would never use a single study to base a recommendation on,” she said. Different studies on the same thing can have vastly different conclusions; they should be taken together as a whole to correct the quirks, biases or methodological flaws in the one-offs. “When you read a health headline, put it in perspective,” she concluded.

In fact, she said her newest study—published in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine—is consistent with the body of literature that shows eating fish during pregnancy is important to neurodevelopment but that there are adverse effects related to eating too much mercury. On the specifics of the ADHD link, she said that the research is fairly new. As well, there were some limitations to her study: the participant dropout rate was high, which means that the findings may have been skewed; mothers’ fish consumption was self-reported and people are not always reliable sources of information about their eating habits; and the study was based on a relatively small group of people living in one community, not necessarily a representative sample.

“While I’m glad this study is getting press,” she said, “my hesitation is that people read these stories and change their behaviours based on one study.”

Dr. Helle Kieler, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has looked at the effects of anti-depressant use in moms—a source of much anxiety in the headlines. In an email to Science-ish, she wrote that it’s difficult to give general recommendations for medications during pregnancy, but if there are safe and effective alternative treatments available, parents should explore them. “This is the case for mild and moderate depression and anxiety disorders, where psychotherapy could be offered to a greater extent instead of SSRIs,” she added. “We know very little about the effects and adverse effects of SSRIs during pregnancy.”

Her advice to expectant parents was to go beyond media reports before panicking or modifying behaviour. “Find out what kind of study was reported,” she said. “Was it an animal study or were humans involved. What kind of risks are reported. If relative risks, one would want to know in relation to what. Was it a rare or more common outcome and did they report absolute risks.”

With the hope of soothing the worries of expectant parents, Science-ish conducted an informal survey with researchers who look at pregnancy and safety, asking for their evidence-based advice. Most of it was plain common sense, the stuff your grandmother would tell you. Eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight. Don’t smoke. If you drink, make sure it’s only half a glass and infrequently. Don’t use drugs, and do your research* if you need to use medications because we simply don’t know the long-term effects of many of them. That boring stuff doesn’t make the news, though. So Science-ish would add: take the headlines with a grain of salt.

*Check out the Science-ish guide to searching for health information on the web.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at the Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto




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What to expect when you’re expecting? Crazy headlines about pregnancy risks

  1. I dunno that it’s any ‘conspiracy to lower birth rates’….we’ve openly been trying to lower birth rates since the 60s

    Just more of the fear, Fear, FEAR… about anything and everything that our govts keep pushing on us.

    It’s gonna end up as the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ classic.

  2. We’ve openly lowered birth rates to societal collapse since the 60′s. That is, the West stopped having babies, the rest did not.

    • Mmm no societal collapse….and ‘the rest’ have indeed done so as well.

      • Yemen will have the population of Russia by 2050, it had 4 million people in 1950. Europe had twice the population of Africa in 1950, it currently has the same, it will have half the population by 2050.

        Just check here for details how the West is commiting self-genocide: http://www.photius.com/rankings/world2050_rank.html

        If by “the rest”, we mean South-Korea and Japan, you are correct. They have very low birthrate. But if by “the rest” we mean 75% of the rest of the planet, their birthrate have not slowed down, they have accelerated. Not only are they increasing population at home rapidly, but they have become the condition of the population increase in the West for the last 25 years. Increasingly so anyway, all western countries except France and the US have a birthrate below replacement rate. That is, without immigration (and for now, increased lifespan), our population would decline in number each year.

        • The world population will level off at about 9 billion, and then start dropping. The planet isn’t overpopulated in any case….we could all live in Texas if we wanted to.

          Did you just suddenly realize whites are a minority?

          • Projections are rarely reliable. They ignore all sort of natural and man-made calamity. Who said a plague of some sort will not come around decimating vast regions? We had AIDS that came around, but it wasn’t a really serious threat. We see cancer growing. Nuclear holocaust is still possible, and more so as insane countries are acquiring it.

            I never did question the fact overpopulation is technically impossible, just ignoring what the future will be. Just like the folks in 1968 said we would be doomed by 1980, so the same idiots today say we will be doomed by 2030 or whatever fit their ideology. This isn’t relevant at all, it is projections and projections are like prophecies with some science thrown in. No matter how often they are wrong, they’ll keep posturing. Kind of like how economic projections are always wrong, because basically there is something about human activity that is impossible to project with what we know today.

            Having said that, I do not care about “World Population” per se, I have no interest in “the world”. It is an remote entity, I am a citizen in a country, and then in a Province and then in a municipality. I think the population of my neighborhood is more relevant to me than the number of people on the whole planet.

            Overpopulation is certainly a concern for metropolis like Mexico, Sao Paulo and many corners of India and Bangladesh. But it is their problem, unrelated to world population, unrelated to Canada, just regional problems.

            I don’t doubt there is always ways to increase human population, and put them all in small patch of land. We certainly have many areas in Canada we barely touched. Anything above the 52nd parallel north almost have as low a population density as Greenland.

            But if you don’t mind the future belong to Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen, while Russia vanish, and the forebear of our civilization (Greece and Rome) also dissapear due to suicidal birthrate, then the world population is your sole concern. The total number of people on earth is wholly irrelevant to me, but the declining population of the West is a big deal, the biggest concern to me anyway. But that entirely depend how you view the world, if you think Somalis can take over where we left off, then that is your opinion.

            If you wish, you can read the last Houellebecq novel. He imagine an amusing future, where Europe is entirely irrelevant. Immigrants don’t go there anymore, they take small ships headed toward the East (where jobs are), but are stopped and trafficked by pirates in the Indian Sea. The sole survivor of Europe is places for tourists like France, where sex tourism, luxury products and an idea of traditions share the burden of wealth creation (French cuisine, wine, cheese, ruins in the backdrops), and the new clients come from the East (Russian Oligarchs, Chinese and Indian businessmen, Arab sheiks). Canada in this world is also entirely irrelevant.

            The fact pirates have returned as a subject making the headlines in the XXIst century should be one indication among others we are headed backward.

            Birth rate have been lowering non-stop since the 60′s. Desmond Morris projected what would happen in the 70′s, the most educated, richest and most successful elements of society would stop reproducing basically. And the obvious shift would occur. The propaganda against child rearing have been successful, in that the most educated women often have zero children, and the least educated women have plenty.

          • Well events can happen out of the blue, but on the whole the projections are pretty accurate…..they have been for a very long time now.

            The problem IS that you are only concerned with where you live, and nothing else……the rest of the planet not only matters, it affects you everyday, so it’s important to pay attention AND have accurate information.

            80% of the world now lives in cities….and we have always had large cities.

            90% of Canada is uninhabited….we have plenty of room

            Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen aren’t about to take over the world….they are too small….China and India have the most people of anyone in the world.

            Countries, populations, cultures….rise and fall, come and go, and have done for thousands of years. Did you think the west was immune?

  3. Good work on this. We create so much needless anxiety in new parents. “Quick, get that plastic rattle away from Junior before the chemical leech into him and damage him in some non-specific way!” An article debunking some of the crazy crap that’s out there about childbirth would be most welcome too. (“Oh noes, epidurals turn your baby into a drug addict!” I am not even joking on that one).

  4. Women should avoid any and all books about pregnancy and raising children and instead talk to their own mothers and fathers . . . after all they did a good enough job raising their kids to get them to adulthood.

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