Noteworthy ECD resources (v4): Prenatal learning and brain development

[This post is part of my Noteworthy Early Childhood Development (ECD) Resources series, which rounds up and highlights key resources on particular topics.]

Pregnant Woman

Image courtesy of duron123 /

Early childhood development is often defined as the period from birth to eight years of age (some define it as birth to six years of age). However, prenatal development – the development that occurs even before birth – influences so many of our most basic human functions. In today’s edition, I’d like to share with you a few resources on prenatal learning and brain development – two sets of research examining the long-term effects of prenatal experience on child outcomes, and an overview of prenatal brain development.

Project Ice Storm: This project by Suzanne King, David Laplante, and other researchers studies the effects of prenatal maternal stress on child development. This prospective research study has been examining the effects of the January 1998 Ice Storm in Quebec, Canada on pregnant women’s stress levels and children’s outcomes in childhood and onward. This research is of professional as well as personal interest to me as I grew up in Montreal and was living there during this Ice Storm over 15 years ago, and I remember sensing the stress at both individual and collective levels. Project Ice Storm’s research findings indicate that both the intensity and the timing (for example, during early pregnancy versus during late pregnancy) of maternal stress affect children’s cognitive outcomes at age 2 (King & Laplante, 2005 – pdf) and at age 5 (Laplante et al., 2008 – pdf). Other research has similarly found that prenatal maternal stress levels, especially early in pregnancy, have negative effects on child development (e.g., Davis & Sandman, 2010). Project Ice Storm research findings have also found that prenatal exposure to a natural disaster affects children’s motor function at age 5 (Cao et al., 2014 – abstract), risk of obesity at age 5 (Dancause et al., 2012 – pdf), and metabolic outcomes in adolescence (Dancause et al., 2013 – pdf).

Prenatal Flavour Learning:  With her colleagues, Julie Mennella has examined how babies learn and accept different flavours based on their prenatal and postnatal exposure to those flavours. One fascinating study (Mennella, Jagnow, & Beauchamp, 2001) involved three groups of mothers: The first group drank carrot juice during pregnancy but not after pregnancy (while breastfeeding). The second group drank carrot juice while breastfeeding but not during pregnancy. The third group avoided carrot juice altogether. When the babies began to eat solid food a few months later, the researchers gave them cereal made either with water or with carrot juice, and videotaped their responses. Sure enough, the babies who had experienced carrot during pregnancy (through amniotic fluid) or during breastfeeding (through their mother’s milk) made less negative faces while eating the carrot-flavoured cereal and ate more of it, as compared to the babies who had had no previous prenatal or postnatal exposure to carrot! For a recent review of this and other research, see this chapter by Mennella & Ventura, Early Feeding: Setting the Stage for Healthy Eating Habits, 2011 (pdf). You can also listen to an NPR podcast with Julie Mennella here: Baby’s Palate And Food Memories Shaped Before Birth, 2011.

Brain Health – Prenatal Development (The Dana Guide): This web resource offers one of the most helpul and well-written overviews of prenatal brain development that I have found. The website provides comprehensive information on prenatal brain development, including monthly descriptions of key occurrences and progressions in prenatal brain development. There are also sections on: Nature and Nurture; Building Blocks of the Brain; Growing by Leaps and Bounds; The First Glimpse and Flutters; Moving, Thinking, Being: The Cerebral Cortex; Cells Start to Talk; and Preparing for Birth. The resource further provides guidance on how expecting parents can support prenatal brain development.

Bonus resource! Annie Murphy Paul – What we learn before we’re born: Here’s an extra resource for you – a TED talk providing a fascinating overview of research on prenatal learning. Science writer Annie Murphy Paul describes current research showing how much babies learn in the womb — from the sounds of language to the tastes of foods.

Some important thoughts: As we learn more and more about the prenatal period, there is a tendency to put increasing pressure and expectations on pregnant mothers to act in certain ways for the benefits of the unborn child. With headlines such as the New York Time’s recent “Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb” and constant instructions on what to do and what to avoid during pregnancy, we are placing additional and perhaps unnecessary anxieties on pregnant mothers. This arguably extends traditional developmental psychology’s tendency to ‘blame’ mothers for adverse child outcomes. In this way we expect mothers to overcome all the barriers and inequities in society to somehow nurture and raise children to perfection. We need to be careful of the political and social implications of the research we conduct and how that research is interpreted and used. For the above research on prenatal learning and development, I would argue that the most important implication is the fundamental need to establish societal norms and structures which support and nurture pregnant mothers and expecting families. For example, the research demonstrating the influence of prenatal maternal stress and diet on child outcomes should push us to advocate for quality living standards for young families. Rather than putting pressure on pregnant mothers around how they eat or how they stress out (both of which are greater challenges for low-income and marginalized groups),  a healthy quality of life should be accessible all segments of society. This includes good working conditions and minimum wage levels which actually enable a healthy and good living standard, access to quality health care and education throughout the lifespan, healthy and fresh food and activity options easily accessible and affordable to all segments of society, supportive parental leave policies, and so on. All of this, at a systemic level, have a much greater impact on child outcomes – and on the well-being of society as a whole, than do individual actions within unsupportive and even oppressive social structures.

What are your thoughts?

Please share thoughts, ideas, and additional resources in the comments section or via email! Thanks.

Sadaf Shallwani

For more resources, check out other Noteworthy Early Childhood Development Resources editions.

2 thoughts on “Noteworthy ECD resources (v4): Prenatal learning and brain development

  1. Excellent, Sadaf. Thanks for posting. More and more research shows the importance of prenatal and early nutrition, and we need to work toward providing resources to women and families that enable them to reach reasonable goals for eating. I think that these could be prioritized so as to make the most of any available resources that we do have (e.g., let’s face it, not everyone will eat organic and there is not a lot of evidence that they need to in order to ensure proper development) and I definitely think that we need to look at societal structure, rather than only the individual, when trying to foster optimal eating habits. It is not a blame-game (I talk to my students about this all the time in my dev psych class).

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Janet. I haven’t sat in on a dev psych class in awhile but I am so glad professors like you are bringing up societal/systemic issues that shape individual human development!

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