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Last Updated: Monday, 2 October 2006, 01:31 GMT 02:31 UK
Confused, guilty and pregnant
By Anna Browning
BBC News

Pregnant woman opening bottle of champagne
To booze or not to booze? The jury is still out
Another week, another pregnancy-related study is making news. This time, we are told, a little weight gained during pregnancy and not shifted after birth can risk problems next time around.

The week before it was an alcohol study, which revealed one in 20 would-be mothers was drinking more alcohol than recommended during pregnancy putting their babies at risk of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

And next week? Who knows. After eight months in the "family way" I've stopped listening.

Since that little blue line appeared on the pregnancy test, blue cheese, soft cheese (some say all cheese) has been banned. So has shellfish - cooked or not, depending on who you speak to - too much caffeine, bagged salad, bought coleslaw, and sin of sins, cigarettes.

Add to this, alcohol - some say never, others say sometimes - flax seed (I'm now told), pate, liver, raw eggs, marlin, shark, hot baths and saunas.

Oh, and MUST take folic acid.

And then there's exercise. My doctor tells me he has had pregnant patients running up to 32 weeks, and yet I've seen a woman in the gym told to take her and her bump off a treadmill.

Just when did a seemingly simple act of nature get so complicated and the evangelists/doom-mongers take over?

Pregnancy in the 21st century isn't just about piling on pounds - again a constant topic of public comment - it's about piling on guilt too.

According to research by charity the National Childbirth Trust two out of five (39%) pregnant women and 56% of expectant fathers are now "very" worried that something will be wrong with their baby.

And according to yet another pregnancy survey, this time by baby charity Tommy's, 29% of pregnant women feel confused by all the conflicting advice they read.

Are peanuts a total no-no or just if there's a history of allergies in your family? Is canned tuna ok?

And does the odd glass of wine make me Satan?

You have got to think about the quality of the research
Belinda Phipps, NCT

Read any message boards out there, and there are hundreds of would-be mums drowning in conflicting advice.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust, says it is confusing and difficult for most women "because there's research, and there's research".

Also, advice was "coming across as rules" with an awful lot of people getting in on the act and telling parents what to do "in a very paternalistic way".

The NCT, she says, likes to treat parents as adults by giving them the information and allowing them to make a decision for themselves.

But then making that decision is not necessarily all that straightforward.

The charity has launched an advice phone line to answer expectant families' queries using "trusted" information.

"You have got to think about the quality of the research, but that's enormously difficult," she said

And don't forget research costs money.

"Research that gets done does tend to be that in which there's a commercial interest," says Ms Phipps.

Pregnant woman and woman with child smoking
Pregnancy can be a fag

Ultimately, pregnancy and childbirth are subjects about which we know very little for certain.

"For example we know breastfeeding is the healthiest option for feeding your baby and milk is all that is needed for the first six months," she said.

"Apart from not smoking or stopping smoking, breastfeeding is the most significant health intervention, which will improve the health of a baby."

Drinking high levels of alcohol in pregnancy also had a high chance of damaging a baby, she said.

"We know if you want to have a straight forward birth, good health when you start your pregnancy, having a midwife with you throughout your labour and choosing a place of birth outside a consultant hospital unit are important.

"Taking folic acid does reduce the chances of spina bifida but you need to eat high folic acid foods or add folic acid to your diet before you become pregnant for best effect.

"Much of the rest is fluff often puffed up to get a headline for the commercial interests behind it."

Meanwhile, we are becoming more stressed.

There are fewer pregnancies - so we are perhaps less blasÚ - and pregnancy is confirmed earlier. There are also more tests for birth defects.

Added to this, we now come from smaller families, so have less experience of babies, adding to our feelings of vulnerability.

'Mostly normal'

A midwife for 26 years, Sue Macdonald, from the Royal College of Midwives, says she notices people have become more anxious. But they needn't be.

"Different family shapes do impact on women's confidence. As women tend to have smaller families they expect more of themselves," she says.

"But first and foremost, pregnancy and childbirth is normal for most women."

This isn't to say it is not a good time to assess your lifestyle.

"For midwives it is a good time for them to work with women more, to help them improve their health and well being," she says.

For example, they like to use it as a time to encourage women to cut down on smoking and drinking.

And if you are worried, don't keep quiet.

"If you have a specific issue that you are not sure about it is always useful to talk to your midwife."

Even if they don't know the answer, they can try and find out for you.

Here are some of your comments:

I am an obstetrician and much as I would like to re instate that most pregnancies and normal, it is true that we are seeing more illnesses,?? stress, pollution and processed food related because those are the things which we are exposed to more and more. Hundred years ago, so many women did not smoke and work in competitive environments and food was organic and air clear....I am sure it contributed to normal pregnancies. But they also had the time and energy to produce a few more just in case one or two did not survive, can we afford that today?
Nilanjana, Bahrain

Pregnancy is complicated. It is not always straightforward. I agree some information is ridiculous, but other information is necessary. My main concern is not with information over load, it is with not necessarily being given correct information, and not being told why you are asked to monitor certain things, like kicks felt, swelling, nausea etc. Women should told why checking these things is important instead of just being told to do these things.

If information is given correctly, then some pregnancy tragedies could be avoided. In my opinion pregnancy today is treated in a blasÚ manner, people think things can't go wrong, well they can. I know because my third pregnancy ended in tragedy.
Kelly Walsh, Grange, UK

How times have changed. The doctor told my wife she was pregnant, we left the surgery and went into the nearest hotel for a celebratory drink, the mother-to-be included. Tut! Tut!
Stan, Edinburgh

Never did a story resonate with me so well! Seven months pregnant myself, I've received all sorts of conflicting advice from friends, family and even health professionals. Add to that that my sister has just given birth in Australia, and another close friend is about to give birth in France, and they have been given advice that often conflicts with what I have been told too. For example, no restrictions on patÚ in France, but it seems that alcohol is even more taboo for pregnant women than here, and the cheese restrictions are the same. In Australia, no restrictions on eggs (perhaps because salmonella is so rare) or seafood. I'm quite happy to make my own judgements about what is appropriate or not (and have a supportive midwife in this respect), but I can imagine for some younger mothers-to-be with little family support it must be very confusing!
Emma Norling, Hope Valley, United Kingdom

With 'children' now aged 25 and 22 I'm surprised they survived long enough to get born! I drank alcohol in both pregnancies, ate what I normally ate including soft boiled eggs, cheese of all descriptions, fish and peanuts - plus extra chocolate of course! - put on too much weight and just lived a 'normal' life. I don't smoke (now that is well documented as causing foetal difficulties) and I took my folic acid and iron pills. My advice if you're pregnant? It's a natural state, everything in moderation, have a healthy balanced diet and you won't go far wrong. And a glass or two of wine never went amiss....
Hilary, Bristol, England

I agree that sometimes we are bombarded with too much conflicting information but it is common knowledge that smoking is harmful not only to unborn babies but everyone. Anyone who smokes whilst pregnant and anyone who condones it should take a good look at themselves. What better reason in life is there to give up???
Sharon , Bristol

It's true and everyone, whether they have had a baby or not seems to have words of wisdom for you!
Rachel, London

In regard to advise as to what to and what not to do, I must agree. My wife is due in a little over 3 weeks and since the start of the pregnancy we have been lambasted with conflicting health/nutrition information. Every mealtime or snack turns into a quiz with time spent cross referencing books and the internet!
David, Caterham, UK

You shouldn't here be putting tobacco and alcohol in the same sentence with things like peanuts and eggs. Since tobacco and alcohol have been proved to seriously damage the health of the mother, it is obvious that they would be a serious risk to the more sensitive body of a baby. Saying that this is 'fluff' is just self- justifying.
Gabriela, London

I agree whole heartedly! I am nearly 9-months pregnant and the amount of scare-mongering that is in the news and in research magazines is shocking. As a pregnant woman you feel constantly under pressure to follow all the advice, which is conflicting at best.

The human race has survived perfectly well for three million years (thereabouts) without all these rules and regulations...what has suddenly changed?
Sophia, UK

I'm 25 weeks pregnant with my first child, and I feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of information I'm expected to digest. Thanks to books and studies I've found myself reading the back of every packet of food wondering if the contents are safe. At one point I found myself in tears over whether or not an e-number was dangerous. In order to put my mind at rest, I've stopped everything; no alcohol, no caffeine, no peanuts, and no herbs (apparently things like basil and sage are uterine stimulants). The amount of hearsay around to panic pregnant women is unbelievable - I wish I'd been given a definitive guide as to what's safe and what's not at the outset, instead of spending what should be the most enjoyable 9 months of my life panicking.
Siobhan Mitchell, Edinburgh

It's reassuring to read that other people find pregnancy research very confusing and worrying. I am 20 weeks pregnant and can't believe how much conflicting advice there is out there. Common sense seems to have gone out of the window!
Katie, Southampton, Hampshire

This article is so true. My wife and I are expecting our first child at the age of 35. We're trying to get our heads around the whole scans issue. I've come to the conclusion that the stress, guilt and confusion it's all causing is far more damaging to our child than a handful of peanuts and a sip of wine!!!! Bring back Dr Spock
Daniel, Ipswich

The jury is not still out on whether to booze or not to booze during pregnancy, as you claim. It was determined a long time ago that alcohol is harmful for the foetus. And while one drink may not cause permanent damage, no safe maximum limit for alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been defined. So the simplest solution is to give it up altogether during gestation and lactation. That should not be a problem if you are not an alcoholic.
Susanna Bell, Helsinki, Finland

Thank you, I have a friend who is pregnant at the moment who is a bit of a worrier and she is constantly coming to me with these stories about scares and other issues over pregnancy. She comes to me as i have three children of my own and basically i always have to say that everyone is different, common sense will tell you most things, the rest is how you feel, what feels right, if you are happy then the baby will be happy. If you are worried about a certain thing then ask the doctor or midwife, but in the whole, listen to yourself. She usually calms down then. Good article
Brendan McDonnell, Lymington, UK


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