For many moms-to-be, getting pregnant often means making a variety of lifestyle changes meant to increase the likelihood of a healthy, safe pregnancy. Women usually give up alcohol or cigarettes — not to mention possibly dangerous-to-fetus foods like sushi or deli meat — and up their folate consumption, all in the name of protecting their growing babies. Yet research into pregnancy and child birth is constantly evolving, and scientists are continuing to find new and important information that can help improve babies' outcomes. The latest birth and postpartum health studies are continually attempting to shed new light on common issues new parents face, so if you have children, are pregnant, or are considering starting a family, you'll want to check them out.
The findings of scientific studies can sometimes be frustrating — since comprehensive research takes a long time, and might not always yield definitive answers, at times it's hard to know exactly what we should or shouldn't be worried about. And of course, no amount of scientific knowledge can ever entirely prevent complications from happening, and it also shouldn't be used to make any new mom feel ashamed or guilty about what she did or did not do while pregnant. But being aware of some of the most up-to-date findings could at least help influence the choices we make, so being aware of what's out there seems like a really good idea.
Breastfeeding May Lower Women's Multiple Sclerosis Risk
When it comes to new motherhood, breastfeeding research can have a polarizing effect. On the one hand, emphasizing the important (and often life-saving) value of breastfeeding can have a huge impact on overcoming any unfair stigma or judgment, and encouraging women to stick with it. A study published this month in the online version of Neurology, for example, found that women who breastfeed their children for 15 months or more may be less likely to develop multiple sclerosis than women who don't, according to Healthline. Specifically, researchers found that those women were actually 53 percent less likely to have developed MS than those who either didn't breastfeed, or who breastfed their kids for four months or less.
That's pretty encouraging research, and serves as yet another reason why increased breastfeeding support for women is a really good idea. Yet it's important to note that studies like this aren't meant to demonize formula feeding, or make women feel bad if they are unable or choose not to breastfeed. And while the findings suggest that there does appear to be an association between extended breastfeeding and MS risk, it doesn't necessarily mean that breastfeeding specifically protects against the disease — the study authors noted that more research was needed to prove that link.
Poor Body Image May Affect New Mom's Breastfeeding Rates
Reduced MS risk could turn out to be yet another of many benefits provided to women who breastfeed their babies, but a recent study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that, for many women, the decision to breastfeed is affected by much more than just a list of potential pros and cons. According to Medical News Bulletin, the study found that obese mothers were less likely to exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least 6-8 weeks following delivery compared to mothers considered to have a medically-healthy weight, and that, specifically, "better body image was related to maintaining breastfeeding and to lower post-natal psychological distress for all women."
That makes sense — if you are struggling with your body image, why wouldn't a new experience that forces you to negotiate a new relationship to your body feel more difficult? The study's findings suggest that addressing the psychological and emotional aspect of breastfeeding is an important part of supporting women who want to exclusively breastfeed their infants, which is a big deal. But body image issues aren't necessarily the most important factor: according to the study, the mother's education levels actually played a bigger role when it came to breastfeeding rates. And of course, being obese in itself doesn't mean a woman will automatically struggle with poor body image — the study didn't look at underweight or overweight women, nor did it assess participants’ opinions of their body before pregnancy. And healthy-weight women can still struggle with their body image, too. But the study's findings raise an important point regarding thinking about breastfeeding support holistically, and how medical professionals can better help women who may be struggling.
An Effective New Treatment For Postpartum Depression Could Be On Its Way
According to Psychology Today, researchers tested a new drug called brexanolone on 21 women suffering from postpartum depression. The drug is meant to allow a woman's levels of allopregnanolone — a neurosteroid that drops dramatically after birth, possibly triggering depressive symptoms — to return to normal levels. And the results seem promising: seven out of 10 women who received a 60-hour infusion of the drug reported full remission of symptoms. And 30 days later, the positive effects were still apparent.
The encouraging results sound like the drug could definitely be a big step forward when it comes to offering help for women struggling with depression after giving birth. But unfortunately, it could take a while: further trials will need to be conducted before brexanolone can be offered as a treatment option for PPD.
Pollution Could Increase Women's Risk For Pre-Term Labor
Pre-term labor is one of the leading causes of infant death in the United States according to the National Institutes of Health, but there is still a lot that researchers don't know when it comes to preventing it. Certain factors are known to increase a woman's risk of pre-term delivery — cervical abnormalities, multiple births, infections, placenta previa, and IVF, for example. But researchers at the NYU School of Medicine recently discovered that environmental factors could also have an impact.
According to Science Daily, the study, published this month in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that exposure to air pollution early in pregnancy could increase a woman's risk for preterm birth and low birth weight. Specifically, the study looked at the effect of fine particulate air pollution, which is the type of pollution we inhale and don't usually see (think, car exhausted and power plants). The research showed that mice exposed to this kind of pollution in early pregnancy were at a higher risk of negative pregnancy outcomes, and though the results can't necessarily be directly extrapolated to humans, the fact that pre-term labor is such a big concern in the United States suggests that it may not be a bad idea for pregnant women to avoid high pollution areas during early pregnancy when at all possible.
Being pregnant or newly postpartum can be difficult for so many reasons, and it can often feel impossible to know if you're doing everything "right." Scientific studies about pregnancy and child birth are incredibly helpful for increasing understanding about important issues, and improving the support and medical care available over time. But while it's definitely not a bad idea to follow along with the latest research, it's also important to keep it all in perspective — when it comes to pregnancy or postpartum health, checking in with your doctor with questions or concerns is still going to be the wisest bet.