Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies? A Review and a Giveaway!

I just finished reading the new book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies? by Jena Pincott. Before you jump to the conclusion that this is a completely fluffy book, consider the subtitle: “The Surprising Science of Pregnancy.” It turns out that this book is chock-full of science, some of it admittedly fluffy but some of it rock solid. I enjoyed the book and thought that you might, too. I tweeted Jena Pincott to see if she was interested in donating a copy for a giveaway, and she enthusiastically agreed.

(By the way – if you aren’t on Twitter and wonder what the point of it is, then this gives you a good example of why it is cool. I can take a break from the book I am reading and tweet the author a message. Within minutes, we’ve had a little conversation about her book, doing a giveaway, and remarked that our daughters were born just a few months apart and how much we are enjoying this age.)

So here we are – the first-ever giveaway on Science of Mom. I don’t know if I’ll make a habit of this, but I like the idea of reviewing books occasionally, and if I can put together a giveaway to share a book that I like with you, that seems like a win-win. Just to be perfectly clear, I purchased my own copy of Chocolate Lovers. The author is donating a copy of the book, but I haven’t received any compensation. I am not obligated in any way to write a positive review, but I also wouldn’t bother giving away a book or product that I didn’t like myself.

Formalities out-of-the-way, let me tell you what I think of Chocolate Lovers:

Chocolate Lovers is a book about the science of pregnancy, birth, parenting, and newborns. It focuses on understanding the magical transition to parenthood from a biological and evolutionary perspective. Pincott tackles old wives tales, quirky observations, and serious science. The book is by no means a comprehensive guide to pregnancy, but it is way more fun than any book I have read on the topic. It won’t explain every pregnancy symptom, but it will make you think about pregnancy as the product of millions of years of evolution. You will envision yourself as one of a long line of pregnant mothers, and Pincott will help you understand that your first trimester nausea probably happens for a reason. Continue reading

Toddlers and the Power of Choice

BabyC and I have been struggling with diaper changes recently. When BabyC was a younger infant, diaper changes were good times – a chance to check in together, have a little conversation, and give her 100% of my attention. These last few months, BabyC has really resisted diaper changes. At 14 months, she is now quite mobile and strong, and diaper changes have turned into a three-ring circus, with her rolling over and popping up to stand at each step. If I try to do part of the diaper change while she is standing, she sits down. She seems to resist every step, kicking and crying. I try my best to be patient, keep moving slowly and respectfully, and talk her through each step (see Janet Lansbury’s brilliant post on this), but I haven’t seen much reward for these efforts, until recently.

A few days ago, I accidentally happened upon one solution to the diaper change debacle. BabyC and I were in the kitchen. She was playing with some toys while I fixed dinner. I noticed that she paused what she was doing, and an intense look of concentration came over her face. Poop time. I made a mental note but wanted to finish what I was doing before taking a break for the dreaded diaper change.

But BabyC came over to me and started to tug on my jeans, trying to get my attention. “BabyC, do you need to have your diaper changed?” I asked. She nodded a very confident “Yes!” I was taken aback. I realized that when I had asked the question, I had assumed that she either wouldn’t understand it or would shake her head “no,” since she usually protests diaper changes so much. Wow, mental note to never underestimate a toddler! Continue reading

How Fit Is Your Fetus? Exercise During Pregnancy and Fetal Heart Rate

Pregnancy made me tired – really tired. Pregnancy fatigue made me collapse into the couch at the end of the day (or heck, even at the beginning of the day), and it made the thought of getting up off that couch extremely painful. If I didn’t have to pee ALL the time, I might have been tempted to live on the couch full-time.

But then, there was a nagging voice in my head that said I should be exercising during my pregnancy. Yes, the couch was more inviting than the thought of taking my altered centered of gravity for a run in shorts that no longer fit. The trick for me was to fit in the exercise before the couch and I made eye contact. Going straight from work to the yoga studio, the gym, or a walking trail was the only way exercise would happen. And most of the time, the movement felt really good. I felt better about myself and my changing body, and I slept better at night.

Beyond these immediate benefits, women who exercise during pregnancy often have shorter labor and delivery times, fewer pregnancy complications, and faster postpartum recovery. Who isn’t motivated by the thought of those benefits? The CDC and ACOG recommend that healthy pregnant women get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week. That’s about 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week, of walking, jogging, swimming, or whatever floats your boat, within reason.

Exercise is good for a pregnant mom, but what about her fetus? How does the fetus feel about all this jostling about and heavy breathing? Many studies have shown that moderate exercise is safe for the fetus, and a new study indicates that when mom exercises, the fetus actually becomes more fit, too!

In a recent study, Dr. Linda May and colleagues at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and the University of Kansas have found that more intense exercise during pregnancy is associated with changes in fetal heart rate similar to that found in adults undergoing fitness training [1]. Continue reading

Breastfeed for your child’s future… as a long-jumper?

I try to stay abreast of the latest in breastfeeding research (hehe), and this paper, published last week, caught my eye:

Exclusive breastfeeding duration and cardiorespiratory fitness in children and adolescents. (Labayen et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)

Was it possible that breastfeeding BabyC could affect her level of fitness as a teenager? I was intrigued.

The study tested cardiovascular fitness on a stationary bike in about 2000 children and teenagers from Sweden and Estonia. The kids’ mothers were asked to recall if they breastfed their children, and if so, for how long (<3 months, 3-6 months, or >6 months). Children that were fed a mix of breast milk and formula for any period were eliminated from the study.

The researchers found that breastfed kids had about 5% greater cardiovascular fitness than those fed formula, and fitness was highest in children who had been breastfed exclusively for at least 3 months. This finding held true even after the researchers adjusted for country, gender, age, puberty, BMI, birth weight, physical activity level, maternal BMI and maternal education.

A 5% increase in cardio fitness may not seem like much, but it is actually rather impressive when you consider all the other factors that are involved. Genetics are thought to explain about 50% of fitness, and body weight and activity level (how much aerobic activity a person routinely does) also play a big role.

As often happens when I read journal articles, this study led me to another published in 2010. Among more than 2500 teenagers from around Europe, Enrique Artero and colleagues found a significant correlation between how long they were breastfed as infants and how far they could long jump. Boys that were breastfed for 6 months or longer had an 11-cm edge over formula-fed boys, and girls had a 7-cm edge. On the other hand, there was no association between breastfeeding and speed in the 20-meter shuttle run. (That sure brings back memories from middle school!) Like the previous study, these data were adjusted for factors like the children’s physical activity and body composition and parental weight and education.

So breastfeeding my child means she’ll be better at both cycling and the long jump?!

Not so fast. You know I’m not going to report the results of new research without talking about its limitations. Both of these studies are retrospective, cross-sectional studies. They looked at kids that were breastfed and those that weren’t and compared their physical fitness. In an ideal world, if you wanted to know if breastfeeding was related to physical fitness later in life, you would enroll a bunch of pregnant women and assign them to either the breastfeeding group or the formula-feeding group. Then, 10-15 years later, you would run their kids through physical fitness tests. We all know that this type of prospective, randomized trial will never happen. No mother is going to let a researcher tell her how to feed her baby. Instead, each mother makes that choice herself, and there are many factors that contribute to her choice.

These types of retrospective, cross-sectional studies of breastfeeding always have one big flaw: they simply can’t account for every factor that may be different between breastfeeding and formula-feeding mothers. My guess is that the researchers have only scratched the surface by including maternal BMI and education in their statistical models. What about exercise during pregnancy? Or mom’s nutrition during pregnancy and lactation? How about exposure to cigarette smoke? These are all factors that might be different between breastfeeding and formula-feeding moms. Any of these factors, in addition to breastfeeding, might influence children’s later fitness level by epigenetic mechanisms or more directly, such as by affecting the rate and timing of muscle growth. Research on the benefits of breastfeeding is very hard to do.

As a skeptic and a scientist, I tend to think that this fitness effect is not just about breast milk but probably intertwined with other factors. But as a nursing mom, it is kind of cool to think about. I’ve tried to tell my daughter that the long jump may be in her future, given her 7 cm edge. She doesn’t seem to care. She has been practicing athletic feats during our recent nursing sessions, but they are more yogic in nature. I swear she did a one-legged downward dog the other day without breaking her latch!

References:

Artero EG, Ortega FB, Espana-Romero V, Labayen I, Huybrechts I, Papadaki A, Rodriguez G, Mauro B, Widhalm K, Kersting M, et al. 2010 Longer breastfeeding is associated with increased lower body explosive strength during adolescence. J Nutr 140 1989-1995.

Labayen I, Ruiz JR, Ortega FB, Loit HM, Harro J, Villa I, Veidebaum T & Sjostrom M 2012 Exclusive breastfeeding duration and cardiorespiratory fitness in children and adolescents. Am J Clin Nutr. Published online ahead of print 01/11/12.

A gift from my father, twenty years gone

My father died 20 years ago today.

I was 12 years old when he died in a tractor accident. He was feeding the cows – moving a large round bale of hay with the front-end loader of the tractor, when the bale rolled on top of him and crushed his lungs. My life was forever changed, but that’s not why I’m writing today.

Being a new parent, I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of parent I am and want to be. And lately, I’ve been thinking about the kind of parent my father was to me. I keep coming back to a strong memory of one of my last conversations with him.

This is the way I remember it:

My father died on a Wednesday. A few fresh inches of snow covered our farm, and that was enough to close school in our rural Kentucky county. I was lingering in my warm bed that morning, wondering what to do with an unexpected wide-open day. I listened to the sounds of my parents starting their day. The coffee maker gurgled above the familiar voice of the NPR correspondent. I gazed at the world map that was tacked above my bed. It depicted an earth that was beyond my imagination, so much bigger than our little snowed-in farm. In the living room, I heard my father pull on his outdoor gear.

But then, before he hurried out to the hungry cows, my father ducked into my room to say good morning to me. He sat down on the edge of my bed, and we studied the world map together. He had traveled around Europe as a teenager with his family, but he told me that one place he still wanted to go was Greece. Or maybe he had been there before, now I can’t remember. Either way, we agreed that we should go there together one day. He told me that we would find the most gracious people in Greece, that strangers would open their homes to us and serve us a meal. That was just how it was done there.

He left, and I closed my eyes again, imagining Greece with blue skies and baklava. It was so warm and unreal. The rest of the day was cold and way too real.

——————————

That is how I remember the morning of January 15, 1992. This past week, I have reveled in that memory. What a gift for a father to leave his daughter – a warm, final memory that I could carry with me, along with the certainty that he loved and cared for me. He cared enough to let go of his to-do list for a few minutes to join me on a Grecian beach. He gave me a meeting place, a place where I could go in my mind when I needed to picture him somewhere on all the days when he wasn’t in my world. He gave me a place where I could find him.

A few nights ago, I dug out my journal from that time, hoping to find more details about our Greece conversation. My journal entry was illuminating:

“My father and I had many conversations about traveling. The neat thing about these conversations was that we were equals. My father acted as if a grown-up was talking to him. I acted as if I was talking to one of my friends. A few days before my father died, we had a conversation about Greece. We both decided we wanted to go to Greece, especially the beaches.”

The 12-year-old me recorded events meticulously, and I since had moved things around in my mind. Two decades later, I was holding onto this beautiful memory about that morning, but the Greece conversation had happened several days before. Flipping back a few pages in the journal, I found the account of what my father had actually said to me that morning. He had asked me to carry in some firewood before going out sledding. Ah well. I had clearly clung to the memory that I wanted to keep, and it served me well. Our memories are selective for good reason.

What is more important to me about that journal entry is that it reveals something about my father’s parenting style. My father respected me as my own person and did not make me feel like “just a child.” He took time for real conversations with his young daughter. He spoke from his heart and listened well. He valued my thoughts, and I knew this.

When I talked to my mother on the phone tonight, I asked her to tell me more about the kind of parent my father was. She said one memory that stuck with her was that he would often drop whatever he was doing to sit down and play with me when I was a baby. He had no problem disregarding the to-do list and prioritizing playtime. My mom admitted that she struggled with this at times, because she was usually focused on getting things done. And you know what? I’m the same way. I hate to leave the kitchen a mess or the laundry to pile up, so BabyC spends a lot of time playing independently or “helping” me wipe up the floor around her high chair after meals or pushing the laundry basket around the house. I don’t feel guilty about this – I think independent play is important, as is preparing meals and doing laundry. But how often do I give her 100% of my attention? My father was good at this, from the time I was very young. I would like to be a little more like him.

My family - June 1980

This treasured memory of a conversation with my father is my reminder to, every once in a while, drop everything to be completely present with my daughter.

To put down my phone and close my computer.

To let my imagination go where hers wants to take us.

To be with her quietly or laugh with her loudly.

To open my lap and my heart.

What a gift. It is mine to give, every day.

The Solution to Picky Eating: 7 types of food with 6 colors, and a smile, too!

I keep seeing headlines like these bouncing around my Facebook and Twitter feeds:

Colorful Plates Boost a Picky Eater’s Appetite

Have you seen them, too? After doing the research for my article on getting picky eaters to try more veggies, I take notice when I see claims of a new strategy that might be useful to parents of picky eaters.

I went to take a look at the study and was further intrigued when I found that it was conducted at Cornell University, my alma mater. Go Big Red! Cornell has a very well-respected Nutrition department*, so I had high hopes for this one. I thought it even might make a good blog post. But when I actually read the study, I decided it wasn’t much help at all. This study told us nothing about how to get picky eaters to eat better or how to improve anyone’s appetite – the headlines were exaggerated. [*For the record, the authors of this study were from departments of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell and Art, Media, and Design at London Metropolitan University – they aren’t nutritionists.]

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started writing blog posts about new studies and then stopped mid-way through when I realized that I was spending more words talking about the limitations of the study than the findings. So I wasn’t planning to blog about this study until I saw it covered on the Wall Street Journal’s family blog. Their article concluded, “To get our picky kids to eat, we may have to become both short-order cooks and food stylists.” No pressure there.

The UK’s Daily Mail also published an online article about the study. It stated, “Scientists have found youngsters are more likely to clear their plate when there is more colour and choice.”

CLEARLY not enough color or variety in this meal.

Scientists have found nothing of the sort. Here’s the run-down of what they actually did find: Continue reading

On Parenting, Science, and Trust – and Choosing to Vaccinate

UPDATE: The Mother Geek Blog is no longer online, but the guest post I originally published there was reprinted on the Australian site Mamamia and the U.S. site DoubleXScience.

I had a guest post published on the The Mother Geek blog yesterday. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen it already, but I thought I would post a note about it here since not everyone is on Facebook. Actually, just about the only person I know who isn’t on Facebook is my mom, so this one is for you, Mom:) If you are on Facebook and haven’t yet “liked” the ScienceofMom Facebook page, I invite you to join the sciency parenting conversation there.

The Mother Geek is written by Jeanne Garbarino, a postdoc at Rockefeller University and a mother of two. I love the mix of writing about science, career, and motherhood on her blog, so when she invited me to submit a guest post for her Momday series, I jumped at the chance.

For my guest post, I chose to write about how being a scientist helps me to trust other scientists and medical professionals when it comes to my child’s health. When the scientific community overwhelmingly supports a parenting practice – like vaccinating our children – I’m on board. If you read my blog, you know that I question other decisions plenty. When it comes to the decision to vaccinate, I trust the science that it is the best thing for my child and for our community.

An excerpt… check out The Mother Geek to read the rest! (Link to Mamamia post here.)

Because I trust scientists and doctors, I didn’t question the CDC’s vaccination schedule. I didn’t pore over vaccine research or agonize about the decision to vaccinate my child. Instead, I trusted that the committees of experts at the CDC and AAP carefully make the best recommendations possible based on the data available. Maybe that is naïve. Maybe I am a lazy mother for not trying to become a vaccine expert before I allowed those first needles to enter my daughter’s thigh. Or maybe not.

What would be naïve is for me to think that I could become an expert on vaccinations.  It would be naïve for me to think that I could understand the vaccine field better than the committees of scientists and doctors who have made this their life’s work. I know how much work it took me to become an expert on one or two corners of nutrition and fetal physiology. It took thousands of hours of reading textbooks and journal articles, sitting in lectures, attending conferences, and struggling at the lab bench before I started to feel even a little bit comfortable calling myself an expert in any field. So I think it is naïve for a parent to think that she can become an expert on vaccines by spending some time on the Internet reading questionable sources, almost all of which have some agenda. I accept that I can’t know everything, and I have enough faith in humanity that I trust others who know more than me.

 

BabyC Explores Gravity, and Mama Learns to Step Back

We’ve been blessed with a couple of beautiful sunny days here in Eugene. This is our first winter in Oregon, and I’m learning that sunshine should not be taken for granted. If the sun peeks from behind the clouds, I try to drop whatever dishes I was washing or laundry I was folding, bundle up BabyC, call the dog, and get outside. (Actually, Yuba the dog never needs to called; he’s always ready and waiting to go outside and perks up if I so much as put socks on, as I’ve written about before.)

We go to the park every day, rain or shine, because Yuba needs his exercise, and we all need to get out of the house now and then. Lately, though, our park trips have been short on time and fun because of the cold and soggy weather. I throw the frisbee for Yuba until he shows at least a little sign of tiredness or until BabyC’s hands turn purple from the cold, whichever comes first. But today, we all wanted to linger in the sun as long as possible.

BabyC focused her attention on a small slope of grass bordering the playing fields. She only started walking a few months ago but hasn’t tackled many hills yet. She started climbing up the hill but quickly fell down, face first, confounded by the slope of the earth and gravity pulling her towards it. She looked up at me but did not cry or seem distressed. She did a typical toddler maneuver to right herself: head down, plant hands, butt up (downward facing dog, my little yogi!), bend knees slightly, push back with hands to slowly transfer weight onto feet, and then carefully, carefully roll up to standing.

And then she fell again. Continue reading