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The luscious baby photos in parenting magazines belie today's new childhood normal. Frazzled parents-to-be are fretting about chronic illness, obesity, and developmental delays. Using the Three Pillars of Radiant Health as our guide — respect the microbiome, food is medicine, less is more — we sally forth with 7 bold and brave ways to keep baby safe.
"I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better."
The incomparable writer and humanitarian, Maya Angelou, inspires us because her loving words are timeless and liberating.
So, How Do We Keep Baby Safe?
#1: FEATHER A NON-TOXIC NEST
When it comes to environmental toxins, less is more, and this is doubly true during pregnancy. The fetus is most susceptible to damage during the first trimester. For this reason, any precautions that you want to take should begin before you conceive. Environmental Working Group released stunning research that babies are born with hundreds of industrial chemicals that are carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and can cause infertility and abnormal development.
Moreover, realize that you are about to experience a Massive Migration of Things into your home. There are few events that inspire a more prodigious commitment and perfectionistic zeal to shopping and decorating than planning for baby's arrival. Not to mention all the gifts!
Here's what you can do:
- Make these eight choices for a cleaner womb, with advice on food shopping, cleaning, cookware, plastics, cosmetics, EMFs, and more
- Review the five critical groups of chemicals to avoid before you set up your baby registry.
- Try, try, try to buy less. Not only will you save money, but you're less likely to bring something dangerous into your home.
#2: GET SERIOUS ABOUT FOOD
I thought pregnancy was a time when I could (and should) eat as much of almost anything I wanted. I was wrong. Real food is medicine and preconception is actually the time to start. We know that diet influences the microbiome. There's emerging evidence that mama's diet, via a placental microbiome, influences baby's first gut bacteria. And the imprint for healthy eating is set very early in life. Here's what to kick to the curb and what to add in:
SUGAR: There are countless reasons to eliminate sugar. It feeds bad microbes and cancer cells. It causes insulin resistance. It's addictive. It makes you fat. It contains no nutrients. It makes you acidic and more susceptible to chronic illness. It is associated with gestational diabetes, abnormally large birth weight, C-section deliveries, and depression.
GLUTEN: Gluten is implicated in hypothyroidism, diabetes, colic, leaky gut, infertility, mental illness, heart disease, GERD, and uh, male gonadal dysfunction. Gluten peptides in the urine of autistic children may contribute to their symptoms. Consider having a gluten antibody test before pregnancy and read Grain Brain (or start with this article).
GMOs: We are only just beginning to investigate the adverse health consequences of GMOs, which is shocking considering they're largely unlabeled. Researchers are raising serious questions about links to allergies, liver problems, infertility, birth defects, and disease. Thoughtful voices advise caution.
REAL FOOD: Your body needs nutrient-dense food, especially during pregnancy. You can't beat the advice of Weston Price and leading proponents of a Paleolithic diet. To start, read Deep Nutrition and the Whole9. Avoid tuna, though. There are new alerts from Consumer Reports and the EPA/FDA.
#3: CONSIDER NEW BENEFITS OF A VAGINAL BIRTH
A newborn baby's gut microbiome is populated by maternal vaginal flora as he passes through the birth canal. Wow, right? This may have significant implications for C-section babies. Disruption of intestinal microbiota is linked to bowel disease, cancer, allergies, asthma, and more. Watch the MicroBirth film trailer.
C-sections are associated with a higher rate of adverse effects, including uterine rupture, uncontrolled bleeding, pain, infection, endometriosis, complications from anesthesia, and accidental cuts to internal organs.
Vaginal birth isn't always easy or in the cards. Having a knowledgeable and positive advocate in your corner can make a big difference. I encourage pregnant moms to investigate hiring a home birth or hospital midwife and a birth doula.
Breast milk is perfectly perfect baby food. It is species-specific. It is easy to digest and contains all the nutrients, growth factors, and immune cells baby needs to develop, thrive, and fight infections. Breastfed babies are less likely to have ear infections, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Breastfeeding also provides important psychological benefits for mom and baby. For science geeks: benefits of early exposure to secretory antibodies in breast milk and the prosocial role of oxytocin (released in breastfeeding).
Baby formula falls short on many levels including ingredients (sweeteners, GMOs, cow's milk, soy) and contamination risks (bacteria and perchlorate). Breastfeeding may look easy but it can be super challenging. For a back-up plan, get the number of a really good lactation consultant. And think twice before taking the free Enfamil samples.
#5: SAY "AHHHHH"
Your mouth offers a revealing window into your total health. If you have bleeding gums, loose teeth, cracked fillings, perpetual cold sores, a swollen, coated tongue, or anything else going on in your mouth, then please take the hint. Your immune system is working overtime and your body isn't at its best. Avoid getting major dental work done while you're pregnant. Doing root canals and replacing or inserting amalgam fillings will mobilize bacteria and mercury. Several European countries advise against amalgam fillings during pregnancy. If you have "silver" in your mouth, have it removed by a holistic or biological dentist six to twelve months before you conceive. And while on the subject of dentistry, check out the effect of fluoride on the fetal brain.
#6: POOP, LATELY?
Listen, I know sometimes it's just not happening. Maybe you're traveling a lot. Or you ignored Nature's call because you were busy. This is something you have to prioritize. Stool is the waste product of our digestive system and contains toxic material, including heavy metals and bacteria, that the body does not want. Get regular and get it out. Ideally, elimination happens after every meal (yes, seriously). If stool stays in your body, then you're retoxifying yourself.
Ok, it's gross but ... peer into the potty and take a good look. It should be medium brown and well-formed. If it is very light or dark, extremely large or narrow, multi-colored, sandy, tarry, pebbly, mushy, disintegrates upon flushing, smells exceptionally bad, or contains blood, mucus, dark flecks, or undigested food, then research what it means and address it before conceiving.
There are gentle ways to get things moving. Water and exercise top the list. Magnesium, vitamin C, probiotics or cultured vegetables, and temporary use of botanicals can help. So can a huge bowl of lightly steamed kale. Reduce or eliminate dairy, refined grains, and processed, high fat, and deep fried treats (they bind the bowels). And don't rely on coffee. p.s. If it's hypothyroidism or Hashimoto's, it's time for some lifestyle changes.
Sustained constipation is a big risk factor for baby. Stools from breast milk-fed babies are soft but they firm up as her diet expands. The goal is a smooth, flat pancake that peels off the diaper without much staining. If stools are hard and dry, with whimpering and straining, then your little one needs some help.
#7: CAREFULLY RESEARCH ALL INTERVENTIONS
Health care interventions have risks. Here are the four most common medical exposures given to mom and baby that deserve our highest scrutiny:
TYLENOL: Turns out that this safest of meds is not well-studied in pregnancy and may be tied to ADHD in children. Further, it is toxic to the liver and the dose that helps is very close to the dose that can cause serious harm (+2 pills!). Acetaminophen sends 78,000 people to the ER annually and is the leading cause of liver failure. It depletes our master antioxidant. When we pair it with another drug, our bodies bear the full brunt of the toxic chemical insult unprotected. Must read: ProPublica's study: "Use only as directed."
ANTIBIOTICS: We take them when we're sick and eat them in our meat. NYU professor Martin Blaser, MD is an expert on the human microbiome and author of Missing Microbes. He surmises that the rise in allergies, asthma, bowel disorders, and obesity is connected to overuse of antibiotics. Listen to his NPR interview. New research finds that early antibiotic use may alter immunity long-term. Antibiotics can be life-saving, but more often than not, what's needed is a bit of courage and restraint.
ULTRASOUND: It's the most universally applied intervention in pregnancy. But excessive, non-indicated use of ultrasound in pregnancy may be tied to rising autism prevalence. Government regulation and end user education are deficient, and parents are led to believe that it's completely safe. Listen to this radio interview.
VACCINES: Pregnant women are routinely vaccinated but fetal risk is poorly studied or not studied at all. In the CDC's Guidelines for Vaccinating Pregnant Women, every recommended vaccine is either Category B or C. In "B" vaccines, there's no fetal risk in animals but human studies are inadequate. In "C" vaccines, there are adverse fetal effects in animals and inadequate human studies. Read the official definitions for additional nuances (the FDA descriptions are a bit more clear).
Vaccine science focuses solely on the presence of antibodies as evidence of immunity. There is no understanding for the individualized complexity of our defense systems, which include other types of immune cells, let alone an appreciation for sophisticated interplay with our microbiota. How does vaccination impact the human microbiome? Expert Jeroen Raes says a disturbance of flora is linked to disease (go to 1:52). Could increased vaccination be playing a role in the rising rates of sick kids? (See 2014 vs 1983 schedules.) Parents need to know there's a choice and it's theirs.
It's Hard to Go Against the Herd!
If we start with the premise that things we do may be contributing to the new normal of childhood chronic illness, then making changes probably means going against the herd. Even little kids know it's not easy to be the cheese that stands alone. By challenging an established norm, we shine a light on a cultural or lifestyle practice. Sometimes these practices are reflexive or unexamined, and we have no idea why we do them. When someone bucks the system, others can get defensive. Our vastly different choice feels uncomfortable to them, like a cross between passing judgment and giving a warning. And then they may not like us so much because anger is easier than the alternative. I totally get it because I've been there.
Standing in someone else's shoes makes us compassionate. Being a parent gives us a stake in the future. Loving a child makes us fearless.
Note: the information contained in this email is not medical advice and does not replace guidance from a qualified medical professional.
Louise Kuo Habakus runs Fearless Parent, an online media platform combining her passion for health/wellness, green living, scientific research, and holistic parenting. She is a published author, runs a nonprofit think tank, and is the lead host/producer of the popular Fearless Parent Radio. Louise was a Bain consultant and C-level financial services executive, and holds two degrees from Stanford University.