Mother blame 2014: epigenetics edition


It’s seems its always the mother’s fault.

There is a long and storied history of mother blame extending back millennia. Women who couldn’t conceive were labeled “barren” even though infertility is caused by male factors 20% of the time. Women who had only daughters and no sons were blamed for the sex of their children, even though it is sperm that determine gender, not ova. For hundreds of years of recent history, women were told that their dreams could affect the outcome of pregnancy; dream of something frightening and the baby might be deformed. Within the past century, “refrigerator mothers” were blamed for autism even though there was never any evidence to support such a link.

Mother blame received impetus with the discovery of teratogens, chemical compounds (natural and synthesized) that do actually result in birth defects in offspring. Visions of teratogens (“toxins”) dance in the heads of many who care for pregnant women even though actual teratogens are rare. There is no question that alcohol (ethanol) is a teratogen in large amounts, but there’s nothing to justify the widespread hysteria over small amounts that is prevalent today.

The latest recruit to the deeply satisfying pastime of mother blame is epigenetics; all the scourges of old age in wealthy countries, like diabetes, obesity and cardiac disease, can be blamed on mothers changing the epigenetics of their offspring. No group has embraced this tactic with greater relish than natural childbirth advocates. The current favorite meme in the natural childbirth community is the claim that Cesarean sections cause epigenetic changes harmful to babies.

It’s not surprising that natural childbirth advocates seized on epigenetics with such enthusiasm. It is startlingly clear to anyone who bothers to look that modern obstetrics saves countless lives of mothers and babies each and every year. It’s pretty hard to oppose lifesaving interventions. But wait! What if those interventions caused health problems down the line? Then C-sections could be deemed harmful even if they saved lives.

Never mind that there’s absolutely no evidence than any maternal behaviors cause epigenetic changes. Mother blaming is too much fun to stop.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this.

In a recent edition of the journal Nature, seven scholars of history, philosophy, gender studies and population health offered a commentary entitled Society: Don’t blame the mothers. The authors identify the problem:

There is a long history of society blaming mothers for the ill health of their children… First recognized in the 1970s, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a collection of physical and mental problems in children of women who drink heavily during pregnancy. In 1981, the US Surgeon General advised that no level of alcohol consumption was safe for pregnant women. Drinking during pregnancy was stigmatized and even criminalized. Bars and restaurants were required to display warnings that drinking causes birth defects. Many moderate drinkers stopped consuming alcohol during pregnancy, but rates of FAS did not fall…

Until the nineteenth century, medical texts attributed birth deformities, mental defects and criminal tendencies to the mother’s diet and nerves, and to the company she kept during pregnancy.

Although it does not yet go to the same extremes, public reaction to developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) research today resembles that of the past in disturbing ways. A mother’s individual influence over a vulnerable fetus is emphasized; the role of societal factors is not. And studies now extend beyond substance use, to include all aspects of daily life.

The authors note that the scientific evidence to support mother blame by epigenetics is preliminary, weak, conflicting and inconclusive.

The authors offer four caveats when considering research on epigenetics:

First, avoid extrapolating from animal studies to humans without qualification. The short lifespans and large litter sizes favoured for lab studies often make animal models poor proxies for human reproduction. Second, emphasize the role of both paternal and maternal effects. This can counterbalance the tendency to pin poor outcomes on maternal behaviour. Third, convey complexity. Intrauterine exposures can raise or lower disease risk, but so too can a plethora of other intertwined genetic, lifestyle, socio-economic and environmental factors that are poorly understood. Fourth, recognize the role of society. Many of the intrauterine stressors that DOHaD identifies as having adverse intergenerational effects correlate with social gradients of class, race and gender. This points to the need for societal changes rather than individual solutions. (my emphasis)

I’d like to offer a fifth caveat: Consider whether it even makes sense to implicate epigenetics.

Take the natural childbirth love affair with the epigenetic “risks” of C-sections. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what epigenetics is and how it works.

Trans-generational epigenetic changes are heritable changes in the regulation of gene expression. The classic example is famine that leads to epigenetic changes that render individuals better able to survive during food scarcity. That improved ability can be passed on to children and grandchildren. The epigenetic changes can become harmful if the environment changes radically. The epigenetic change that allowed a grandfather to survive a famine might increase the risk of a daughter being obese.

That’s the way that epigenetic changes purportedly cause harm, although there is a serious problem with that argument. If epigenetic changes occur so easily, shouldn’t the granddaughter experience epigenetic changes that decreased the risk of obesity?

The bottom line is clear. At the moment, there is no reliable, reproducible scientific evidence that C-sections cause epigenetic changes. There’s no reason to think that C-sections would cause harmful epigenetic changes. There’s no reason to think that trans-generational epigenetic changes that caused harm to future generations wouldn’t change back.

While it is certainly possible for mothers to cause harm to unborn children (think thalidomide or excess Vitamin A ingestion), there is no evidence that  C-sections cause harm or that epigenetics has anything to do with it.

85 Responses to “Mother blame 2014: epigenetics edition”

  1. carryidealrump
    December 21, 2014 at 11:21 am #

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  2. Allie
    September 5, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    The way I understand epigenetics is that it’s about understanding the broad strokes that shape us as a species. Like understanding why broad, societal harms that are inflicted on previous generations (think genocide, slavery, the industrial revolution) continue to impact successive generations even though the harm has been removed. It makes no sense to me to attempt to apply epigenetics at the level of individuals, especially in the absence of even a shred of evidence to support your position.

  3. realitycheque
    September 5, 2014 at 5:32 am #

    I went through some pretty stressful times during my pregnancy, and people consistently told me that my elevated cortisol levels would affect my baby and make him more susceptible to depression/anxiety in the future. MAXIMUM mommyguilt. Anyway, my fears appear (so far) to have been unfounded, and my son is one of the most mellow, easy-going kids I have ever met.

    I don’t know what the evidence says about this, but I can’t help but feel that telling an already stressed woman that she has to mellow out, or else she will PERMANENTLY DAMAGE her unborn child is a really good way to exacerbate her existing stress problems.

    • Dr Kitty
      September 5, 2014 at 7:20 am #

      You have no conscious control over your stress hormones. They are a response to stress. Life happens and life stresses occur. It makes sense to try and reduce avoidable stress, but if you can’t avoid the stress, you can’t control your body’s response to it.

      I do invoke increase cortisol levels on occasion to pregnant women- the ones who aren’t avoiding avoidable stress (e.g. the ones who ignore my advice to take time off work or get help with their kids and are running themselves into the ground, but only if if making those changes is feasible…no point in expecting people to do the impossible).

      I’ll discuss raised cortisol levels if I have someone who is pregnant and has a chronic, painful condition is she is refusing all analgesia in case it hurts the baby. I’ll discuss safe use of pain relief in pregnancy and explain that maternal pain can be harmful in and of itself.

      There is no point telling someone to “mellow out” or “relax” if they can’t, but trying to help someone reduce pain and stress in their lives, that I can do.

      • Jenny_from_da_Bloc
        September 5, 2014 at 10:31 am #

        I wish my doctor’s were as smart as you. They see no risk in allowing out of control pain to just be out of control with no management or suggestions whatsoever. The only doctor who cares is my neuro but he feels like his hands are tied due to the pregnancy and OB. They keep saying maternal pain won’t effect the baby, but like you said what about the biological response to constant stress and pain?

        • Chilly hay
          September 9, 2014 at 3:24 am #

          Holy smokes, I swear must of had the same Dr!! Ended in emerg 5 times in pain (could get through to OB/GYN or family Dr) to be told I’m lying, it’s just suggestive and my choices were suck it and suck it. Miscarraige was a relief as finally my physical pain was over. 6 weeks of the worse pain I’ve ever had, including a ruptured ectopic the year before.

    • Anka
      September 9, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

      Oh yes, this. A bunch of people told me when I had untreated prenatal

      anxiety/depression that it was selfish to be so stressed because it was bad for the baby, and my life was not just about me now. I almost wish that I hadn’t cut them off so I could punch them in the head.

  4. Dr Kitty
    September 5, 2014 at 5:00 am #

    My mother watched some sort of BBC documentary about allergies recently. The premise was that allergies are caused by a lack of gut bacteria, and C-Sections were implicated.
    One of the affected kids was born very premature and spent a long time in NICU. Mum’s comment to me summed it up.
    “They said that because he was in the NICU so long his gut didn’t get the right bacteria and his immune system never had a chance at developing properly. I think they overlooked the fact that the only reason he is alive and has any chance at anything is because he was in the NICU at all. Better allergies than death”.

    Big picture guys.
    We are now at a point where we want to save the babies we have, rather than give up, let them die and start over, which was the default position until not very long ago.
    With that as a starting point, all of this stuff about epigenetics is useless, because the choices we have now are either a) save the baby using the technology we have and live with the consequences of that, whatever they are or b) don’t save the baby because we’re worried about epigenetic changes we don’t yet fully understand c) develop a crystal ball to truly know which CS are unnecessary so we can stop doing them.

    With those as the only options, the only moral option is the first one.
    Epigenetics and CS is only an issue if you can prove that death or serious disability by forced vaginal delivery is the BETTER option than any epigenetic changes induced by CS.

    The information that mode of delivery may cause epigenetic changes has no practical application and should be ignored entirely for the irrelevance it is.

    • Amy M
      September 5, 2014 at 7:56 am #

      Could gut bacteria play a role in allergies? I don’t understand how they would. My impression is that 1)risk of allergies is stronger if a parent or sibling has it (so heritable) and 2)preemies are higher risk for everything.

      • Young CC Prof
        September 5, 2014 at 9:20 am #

        There does appear to be a link between allergies and reduced exposure to the type of bacteria which are common and normally not terribly pathogenic. Like the kind of exposure you get from playing in outdoor dirt. (This is the hygiene hypothesis, also very commonly misunderstood.)

        As I understand the science, which is incompletely, there is preliminary evidence of a link between the microbiome and many aspects of health, but we don’t understand how it works, much less how to improve health by modifying microbiome. Enter pseudoscience, what used to be called science fiction and sold in a different department of the bookstore…

        • Roadstergal
          September 5, 2014 at 11:15 am #

          There are definitely correlations between the microbiome and inflammatory bowel disease (the inflammatory condition most proximal to the microbiome). Where the cause vs effect lies is not fully clear. There were some initial positive studies with fecal transplantation for really bad IBD (fecal transplantation emerging as a good option for patients with refractory C difficile infection), but it’s in the Needs More Study stage.

          When it comes to allergies and autoimmune/inflammatory disease, there’s some genetics and some environment and some not yet understood. Even the mouse models get awfully finicky when it comes to
          genetics (strain) and environment (how pathogen-free your SPF facility
          really is). I go with ‘get vaccinated against the nasties, eat a diversity of food, play outside a lot’ and call it good.

    • fiftyfifty1
      September 5, 2014 at 8:05 am #

      “We are now at a point where we want to save the babies we have, rather than give up, let them die and start over, which was the default position until not very long ago.”

      And is still the implicit position of NCB advocates. Most won’t admit it at all, some will hint at it by saying “some babies aren’t meant to live”, but few will come out and say it straight.

      • Amy M
        September 5, 2014 at 8:06 am #

        At least they recognize that that is a sociopathic way to think.

      • Mel
        September 5, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

        Also implicit is the idea “Better dead than disabled.”

        That’s the part of NCB that I find most disturbing and terrifying: Mothers would rather risk their lives and the lives of their children to prevent having a disability.

        I like my life. I’m never going to be able to run a marathon, but I can walk a half-marathon. I can’t do gymnastics, but I can swim farther than most Americans. My twin is never going to be able to compose music, but knowing ASL lets us communicate easily (and furtively) in public gathering places, plus her ability to read body language is amazing. My brother with ASD will not make a great counselor, but he’s a top-notch accountant. I feel hurt to think that some people are so scared of life’s challenges that they think we’d been better off if we were allowed to die at birth rather than live.

        • Cobalt
          September 6, 2014 at 9:59 am #

          And yet by avoiding basic prenatal testing, real monitoring during labor, and interventions, the rate of severe disabilities from major brain injury or other complications goes up.

    • Mel
      September 5, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

      Damn straight. I was an itsy-bitsy sick premie who has allergies, am overweight, has asthma and God-only-knows- what other evils that modern medicine allowed me to have rather than suffocating to death when my lungs tore when I was two days old.

      IMHO, I’ll take allergy pills, an occasional breathing treatment, and sticking to a healthy diet and exercise over smothering EVERY FREAKING DAY OF MY LIFE.

      If any NCB folks want to argue, I reserve the right to shove a knitting needle into their lungs to simulate a torn lung.

      ETA: Technically, I guess shoving a knitting needle isn’t a “simulation” but an “intervention”. But since I’m not a medical professional, it can’t be an actual intervention, right 😛

  5. Mishimoo
    September 4, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

    OT: Found out today that the CNM who delivered two of our babies has gone on to a teaching position at Uni. Hopefully, she’ll make a difference! She’s awesome – calm, realistic, keeps up on decent studies, and offers effective pain relief more than once. I didn’t need to take her up on the offer, but it was nice to know that she cares.

  6. Sue
    September 4, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

    It’s so frustrating the way ”epigenetics” is being misunderstood and misused as an ideological tool of pseudoscience.

    Even if these people truly understood the reality of gene expression, which they don’t, can they explain how the method of exit from the uterus, occurring over a few hours, could possibly influence gene expression.

    (And you can’t use the word ”toxin”)

    • Young CC Prof
      September 4, 2014 at 11:11 pm #

      Actually, what they fundamentally don’t get is that EVERYTHING that happens to you affects your epigenetics. Lasting significant effects, however? Probably not.

    • Amy M
      September 5, 2014 at 7:57 am #

      That’s what I said….makes no sense at all.

  7. Belle
    September 4, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    OT, but a friend posted this on FB.. hilareous!

  8. birthbuddy
    September 4, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    C-sections save babies.
    Dead babies are unaffected by epigenetics.

  9. Zoey
    September 4, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    A particularly nasty NCB advocate told me, in a discussion about C-sections, that she was more concerned with what C-sections were doing on a population level to human genetics than what interventions were doing to the genetics of individual babies (except the magical gut bacteria, which affect all things).

    Like that, by letting the biologically flawed among us survive childbirth and pass on our genes, we were somehow changing the evolution of humans to create a weaker species. I told her that her philosophy was appalling and basically amounted to either social Darwinism or eugenics, in addition to being profoundly ablest. But judging by the amount of people that liked her comments and insulted me, her thinking doesn’t seem to be too “out there” as far as NCB goes.

    • Smoochagator
      September 4, 2014 at 4:04 pm #


    • Roadstergal
      September 4, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

      There’s a subset of the anti-vaccine movement that has a similar mindset – VPDs kill off the ‘weaker’ among us, so vaccines lower the quality of the human species overall.

      Both stances (VPDs are good for humanity, death in childbirth is good for humanity) are not only mind-bogglingly heartless and inhumane, they also betray a profound misunderstanding of the most basic ideas behind evolution, diversity, and selection…

      • KarenJJ
        September 4, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

        Survival of the fittest being those that have large pelvises but are heartless?

        • Amy M
          September 5, 2014 at 8:02 am #

          Yeah, that’s the thing they really don’t get. “Fittest” means within your current environment. Who cares about the fittest caveman? We don’t live in caves anymore, and that kind of fitness is not applicable in the modern day. If you want to kill off your own spawn by refusing lifesaving measures, there is something inherently wrong with you. Unless we figure out time travel, the Cro-Magnon way of life is gone for good.

          • MaineJen
            September 5, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

            But by refusing lifesaving measures during childbirth, they are ensuring that they and their families will be ready for the post-apocalyptic future that is surely coming soon…soon…any minute now, we’ll all be living in caves again. They are survivalist preppers, to an extreme degree. Only those capable of living in caves in some theoretical future are allowed to survive today. Because toxins.

      • MDP
        September 4, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

        I’ve heard the same argument about babies of mothers who, as the author put it, “can’t or won’t breastfeed.” Implying their babies should starve to death and prevent passing on the Lazy/Defective Mother Gene. The internet is such a messed up place, sometimes.

        • Sue
          September 4, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

          What an irony that many current mothers with attitudes like that were often formula-fed themselves. SHOuld they not have been allowed to survive and reproduce?

          • Amazed
            September 5, 2014 at 6:13 am #

            Can this be applied the other way around, what do you think? My mom’s milk came in about a month after giving birth. Meaning, when she started to recover from almost dying.

            I am pretty glad I have a living brother instead of a healthy 10 pounder of one, starved to death because there wasn’t breastmilk for him and he should have been kept only to the liquid gold that adamantly wouldn’t come.

    • Sara
      September 4, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      Because populations are what matters, not persons.

    • Mel
      September 4, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

      *Thumps head on desk*

      I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who believes in environmental determinism (NCB) would also be a sucker for genetic determinism…

      Plus, farmers have been doing artificial selection (the theoretically faster cousin of evolution) for centuries and we still have animals die in childbirth. Should I let a calf smother and a dam die due to obstructed labor because a calf has a trapped foreleg – a minor positioning problem that has no freaking genetic component but very effectively prevents the calf from being born? If I did, the rate of fetal malpositioning problems in our herd would remain exactly the same while the stillbirth rate would increase and the dam mortality rate would go from rare to common.

    • jenny
      September 4, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

      She sounds like a lovely person.

    • Sue
      September 4, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

      We should get rid of cardiac surgery for newborns too, then?

    • wookie130
      September 5, 2014 at 9:35 am #

      Sick, wierd, freakish. These are the words that come to mind in response to this thinking.

    • GiddyUpGo123
      September 5, 2014 at 10:34 am #

      If that’s her thinking, I hope no one in her family ever develops cancer or contracts a VPD because then won’t she need to forego medical treatment and just let that person die, you know, as nature intended? To protect the human genome from weakness?

    • Jenny_from_da_Bloc
      September 5, 2014 at 10:35 am #

      I just do not understand how a c-section can change a baby’s genetics? It really just doesn’t make sense to me especially from a scientific stand point. Aren’t genetic changes usually caused by teratogens and what not? I’m not a DNA expert but I just don’t see the link

      • Young CC Prof
        September 5, 2014 at 11:32 am #

        The (disgusting) theory is that c-sections allow genetically “inferior” babies to survive and we should just let them die.

        Even if the only reason they need the c-section is that, say, Mom is a 35-year-old first time mother and, thanks to her less stretchy uterus, he got stuck in the wrong position.

        • Amy Tuteur, MD
          September 5, 2014 at 11:45 am #

          Actually, C-sections allow genetically inferior MOTHERS to survive. It’s not the baby’s fault. So maybe women who would die without C-sections should be allowed to do so to improve our species.

          • Jenny_from_da_Bloc
            September 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

            HaHa, then I should definitely be allowed to die as my crappy bones car accidents and need to be fused together which does not allow a baby to descend into my narrow pelvis. Lol, geez that is ridiculous

  10. Alcharisi
    September 4, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    Note that one of the coauthors on the Nature editorial is feminist philosopher Rebecca Kukla, whom Dr. Amy has cited before and who’s absolutely a rockstar when it comes to calling out mother-blaming. I highly recommend her book “Mass Hysteria”. (In addition to being excellent in its content and analysis, it’s very well-written and far more engaging a read than your average philosophy book.)

    • Smoochagator
      September 4, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

      Ugh, the paperback and Kindle editions are both nearly $30 each on Amazon. I’ll keep my eye out at used bookstores.

      • Alcharisi
        September 4, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

        If there’s a university library near you and you/someone you know has access, that might be worth a shot.

      • LibrarianSarah
        September 4, 2014 at 7:53 pm #

        They might have it at your local library. If not, they might be able to get it to you through interlibrary loan. Just be sure to return it on time!

  11. just me
    September 4, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    Totally agree, especially re animal experiments = bad models, except the part about FAS. I do think it is foolish to take the risk of drinking any amount. I def judge preg women who drink. It’s not like it’s a necessary part of life such as taking antidepressants for those who need them. I have a cousin with fas and it’s not pretty.

    • attitude devant
      September 4, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

      Which shows how little you understand about the nuance surrounding what we know about FAS. Also, your cultural bias is showing: in many cultures beer and wine are served with most meals, even to pregnant women. If you’re telling someone to forego a normal part of their culture, you’d better have some decent evidence to show them that it’s harmful, even in small amounts. Said evidence does not exist.

      • just me
        September 4, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

        Yet evidence it’s safe does not exist either. Hence, why risk it. I don’t but the “it’s their culture” bs. Gee, maybe in some cultures pg women smoke crack.

        Likely you have not been thru infertity, miscarriages, etc. like I have. If you had you wouldn’t be so nonchalant about drinking or other risky behavior. And I am not at all a home birth person and actually I am a well educated former scientist, now attorney. No need to disparage those you disagree with.

        • The Bofa, Being of the Sofa
          September 4, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

          Yet evidence it’s safe does not exist either.

          Absent evidence of harm IS evidence that it is safe.

          • PreggieLady
            September 5, 2014 at 7:16 am #

            Jeez, next you’re going to be telling us that it is impossible to prove a negative according to the rules of logic…

          • MaineJen
            September 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

            I’ll give you $1,000,000 if you can… 😉

        • attitude devant
          September 5, 2014 at 12:34 am #

          I’m not disparaging you. I’m telling you that you are wrong. Completely different. I actually had very difficult, very high-risk pregnancies. But I’m an OB, and I’m here to tell you that the evidence that a little bit of alcohol does ANY harm whatsoever does not exist. Women are human. We drink wine and beer with meals just as people have done down through the ages. To ask people who do that daily (French, Italian, German, Portugese, Spanish…) to give it up completely based on completely misapplied information about FAS is BEYOND inappropriate.

          • Happy Sheep
            September 5, 2014 at 10:13 am #

            What exactly is a “little bit”? While I was expecting my last, I tried to find a number and it was difficult finding any solid information.
            I also have an acquaintance that had 2 glasses of wine daily during pregnancy, claiming her OB said it was OK, I’m concerned about the baby’s possible outcomes.

          • Amy M
            September 5, 2014 at 11:02 am #

            I’m curious too. I don’t really drink anyway, so it wasn’t a hardship to give up alcohol during pregnancy. But I did ask my OB about it and she said that since we didn’t know how much it took to really cause harm, best to avoid it. I had a few sips of champagne at a wedding that year, figuring that certainly was safe. Then my (slightly drunk) friend sitting next to me took my glass and drank the rest, so it became a moot point. 🙂

          • KarenJJ
            September 6, 2014 at 8:44 am #

            My obgyn said not to have more than a glass or two a night. I drink maybe a glass or two a week so it was pretty easy to stay under my doctor’s limit. I didn’t drink much at all while pregnant but I did occasionally have a glass of red wine.

        • Stacy48918
          September 5, 2014 at 2:58 am #

          I resent your insinuation that I might be more nonchalant about my child’s health simply because I conceived him without scientific aid. Gimme a break. Holier than thous come in all shapes and colors these days.

        • The Bofa, Being of the Sofa
          September 5, 2014 at 10:33 am #

          Gee, maybe in some cultures pg women smoke crack.

          Don’t know about crack, but in Jamaica, it’s not uncommon for pregnant women to smoke pot. As far as I know, studies of those populations do not find any issues due to it.

          Studies of pot use in the US do find problems, IIRC, but are so bloody confounded that it’s hard to sort them out. They are generally based on drug/alcohol abusers (pot smokers in the US historically have done lots of other unhealthy things; maybe now in places with “medicinal marijuana” we can have less complicated populations.

        • Cobalt
          September 6, 2014 at 9:14 am #

          Not to promote drug use, but smoking crack during pregnancy really isn’t nearly as bad for the baby as is advertised. The ‘lost generation’ of 1980’s crack babies never materialized, and the longest running study of children exposed to crack in utero found that socio-economic status meant way more to outcomes than exposure to the drug did.


    • Trixie
      September 4, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

      But very moderate, small amounts of drinking in pregnancy don’t cause FAS.
      I mostly avoided alcohol while pregnant. Except once after Easter dinner. My grandfather-in-law’s friend in Germany used to send over homemade kirschwasser that he distilled in his back yard, using cherries he grew himself. The friend had passed away, and the very last bottle we would ever get was sitting in front of us, waiting to be divided. Did I drink my little shot? Yes. And I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I don’t regret it a bit.

  12. mtbakergirl
    September 4, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    The practical applicability of this information is also totally unknown, which to me means it is at this point interesting for scientists in this specific field but useless on a population level. For example, if we believe that C-sections are inherently causing epigenetic changes to the fetus/ infant, but we don’t know what they mean, why would we necessarily demonize C-sections? For all we currently know, these changes might be beneficial and the answer might be more C-sections.
    Also, on a personal level I have always been confused about the applicability of both epigenetics and the other catch-all the microbiome. I was born via C-section, but delivered my daughter vaginally. Since both my epigenetics and microbiome were obviously deeply damaged (/sarcasm) by my birth, does my daughter get to enjoy all of the benefits of her magical vaginal birth or does my C-section birth negate those benefits?
    (Though to include all the relevant information we were both also hatted post-delivery so it is possible we are a lost cause 🙂

    • Smoochagator
      September 4, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

      Hatting. Oh dear. Ruined for life.

    • Elaine
      September 4, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      You laugh. There’s this poster on MDC who appears to very seriously and unironically blame a lot of her and her children’s health problems on the fact that her mom had a c-section with her.

      • Trixie
        September 4, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

        Oooh link please?

      • Medwife
        September 5, 2014 at 11:20 am #

        There’s also a vaccine-focused poster who insists that because our parents were vaccinated, it is now impossible to find a group of Western children who are truly unvaccinated, “because epigenetics”. Now it’s impossible to have a true control group in studies on vaccination safety, therefore there will never be a valid study in vaccination safety.

    • Joy
      September 4, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      What about women who have IBS or Crohn’s? Would it be better for them not to give birth vaginally because they have bad gut flora and it will cause epigenetic changes?

    • Sue
      September 5, 2014 at 3:21 am #

      No, silly- even if you were surgically extracted, your own ”healing vaginal birth” has restored all your sparkles! (Unless, of course, you hatted your baby, which deducts a sparkle or two).

  13. yentavegan
    September 4, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    The narrowly defined word “epigenetics” has been co-opted by the NCB advocates to make their opinions/theories sound scientific. I am constantly amazed at how lactation support blogs and natural birth/anti-c/sec blogs throw around medical jargon to bolster their dogma.

    • The Bofa, Being of the Sofa
      September 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

      Make it quantum-epigenetics and there is no limit to what you can apply it to.

      • Sue
        September 4, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

        Or even nano-epigenetics.

        • Mishimoo
          September 4, 2014 at 11:32 pm #


          • Life Tip
            September 5, 2014 at 10:16 am #

            Wet genes?

          • Young CC Prof
            September 5, 2014 at 11:35 am #

            Genes take forever to dry out! No, wait, those are jeans.

  14. Trixie
    September 4, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    That’s very interesting about rates of FAS not falling with the widespread awareness campaign about alcohol consumption in pregnancy. I have a relative with severe FAS who was born in the late 1960s, but I’m pretty sure even then they knew high alcohol consumption was dangerous for the fetus. I suppose the rate staying constant has to do with the fact that people who drink heavily in pregnancy probably are addicts, and can’t simply quit without a great deal of support and medical help.

    • September 7, 2014 at 12:22 am #

      It also has to do with a nasty conjunction of heavy drinking and poor nutrition. Wealthy or at least middle class moms who drink heavily have many less FAS babies than poor women who drink the same amount but can’t afford healthy food and prenatal vitamins.

      • Trixie
        September 7, 2014 at 11:48 am #

        The mother of my FAS relative was also anorexic. Very interesting.

  15. fiftyfifty1
    September 4, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Yes, too often epigenetic changes are conflated with mutations and birth defects. But really these epigenetic changes are not mistakes or defects but rather a choice by the body between two different normal possibilities for functioning. It’s like the cars where you can switch between 2 wheel drive and 4 wheel drive. Both are normal and which one is preferable depends on the road conditions.

    • Amy M
      September 4, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      That’s a great analogy.

    • Roadstergal
      September 4, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      An epigentic change just affects how accessible a given bit of DNA is. The downstream effects of that depend on far more than just the epigenetic change itself. Even for a known change – a certain modification that ‘opens’ a known gene – well, some cells with the ‘open’ configuration still do not express it, and some cells with the ‘closed’ configuration express it nonetheless. I use epigenetics to track cell fate, and the association of fate with activity is interesting and an active area of investigation…

    • KarenJJ
      September 4, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

      “Yes, too often epigenetic changes are conflated with mutations and birth defects.”

      That’s what I was thinking must be going on. Who knows if the epigenetic affects are positive or not? It’s the assumption that DNA is somehow “damaged” and that the DNA should be in some sort of natural state.. And even then epigenetic changes are not the same as having a random mutation of the DNA that becomes a permanent inheritable syndrome.

  16. GiddyUpGo123
    September 4, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    I don’t even really understand the rationale they’re using. OK, so if you experience prolonged famine, that causes your body to respond with these epigenetic changes that will help protect you and your offspring from future famines. So, if you experience birth by c-section, that causes … what? Your body to respond with epigenetic changes that will, what? Protect you from future c-sections? Isn’t the idea that the epigenetic changes occur because there’s some benefit to them? And what exactly happens during a c-section that is more physically traumatic than what happens during a vaginal delivery? I’ve heard all the stuff about how you need exposure to micororganisms during birth and you can’t get that if you’re born by c-section and blah blah blah but I don’t see how failing to be exposed to those microorganisms will lead to the sort of prolonged physical trauma that will cause epigenetic changes, and even if it did, wouldn’t those epigenetic changes be positive? Why would your body respond with negative, non-beneficial epigenetic changes?

    I’m probably not understanding the science as well as I need to to even make a comment. But I just don’t understand the thinking behind that whole theory.

    • fiftyfifty1
      September 4, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

      “I’m probably not understanding the science as well as I need to to even make a comment.”

      You understand the science a hell of a lot better than NCB types and they never seem to feel guilty about making a comment.

  17. Roadstergal
    September 4, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    “If epigenetic changes occur so easily”

    They can indeed occur easily, and change easily. Epigenetic changes are important for development and cell fate decisions – you’re undergoing epigenetic changes every hour of every day.

    It’s a new field, an interesting field – and exciting, but there’s so much to learn and so many opportunities to go off of the deep end on very little knowledge.

    In other words, if someone shows me data on epigenetic changes in a baby born by C-section (even with the proper controls and stats), and someone else shows me a package of data with good long-term clinical and life outcomes in babies born by C-section, it’s pretty clear which is more interpretable and relevant.

    • Cobalt
      September 4, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

      I’d take the increased risk of obesity, or diabetes, or whatever, in adulthood over certain (or even mildly likely) brain damage or death at birth. If there’s trouble now, get the baby out NOW.

      • The Bofa, Being of the Sofa
        September 4, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

        Someone said this a couple of days ago, maybe here, maybe elsewhere, but I remember seeing it. Oh, I remember, I heard it on Doctor Radio (SiriusXM 81)

        You have to be careful in deciding on treatments now in basing that decision on potential issues 20 years down the road. First, you don’t know that you will develop that problem. However, more importantly, you don’t know how that problem would be dealt with 20 years from now. No, diabetes isn’t great, but 20 years from now, we will definitely be better at managing it than we are now.

        Take care of the problem now, and don’t trade the immediate risk in front of you for vague risks later on.

  18. Amy M
    September 4, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    Do epigenetics account for the slight differences in identical twins? Or is it more environmental. I mean, both are developed in the same womb but due to some vascular set up, one gets less nutrients, and ends up a little smaller. Or would environmental factors like that lead to epigenetic changes?

    Anyway, what, exactly, do these NCB looneys think will change due to a Csection? They must not be considering the reason for the Csection in the first place. (Of COURSE they aren’t! All Csections are unnecessary.) If a woman has a Csection for reasons related to obesity or blood pressure, it would make sense that her offspring are more likely to be obese or have blood pressure issues. But that’s just regular genetics/heritability, not epigenetic.

    Even if Csections did lead to some epigenetic change, why is it assumed it will be harmful? There are so many factors that go into determining a person’s risk for obesity, let’s say. It’s never been one gene/one disease for obesity, so it certainly wouldn’t be one epigenetic change/one disease. I understand that many people are upset and confused about obesity or especially autism, but in order to find peace-of-mind, they simply decide something or other is the cause and its always something the mother can control, leading to “everything is mom’s fault.” That’s incredibly lazy thinking, besides being offensive and ridiculous. It’s on par with creationists saying “God did it” when they can’t understand the science, or there is no definitive answer yet.

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