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SUBJECT: Science on Parenting

Notes from a special issue of Science on Parenting:

15 August 2014 Science pages 743 - 759 available at most libraries.

Nature's first functional food - Breast milk: It feeds helpful microbes, fights harmful ones, provides immunity, and jumpstarts a newborn's life. Blood, urine, saliva, and spinal fluid are the most explored by scientists, until recently, when they realized a major omission: breast milk. It is a mixture of fats, proteins, and sugars. "Milk is not primarily about nutrition. Rather [it's about] immune protection."

The taste of things to come - Infants can perceive, and perhaps even learn to love - the distinct flavors of their culture's foods while still in their mother's womb. Babies whose mothers had eaten garlic were happy to drink garlic-infused milk, while infants with garlic-free mothers writhed to avoid it. The same was found with carrots and vanilla. Neurons that relay information about smell from the nose to the brain respond to thousands of odorant molecules, distinguishing perhaps 1 trillion odors. Mothers with a junk food diet developed abnormal neural reward circuitry resembling that seen in addiction.The ability to adapt to unusual flavors lasts until about 3 and a half months of age. This system exists to ensure that newborns learn to eat what their mothers eat no matter how it tastes.

Maternal Mental illness - maternal mental illness adversely affects infant brain development and subsequent social and emotional health as a result of inadequate prenatal care, poor birth outcomes, and impaired parenting practices. The broad implications of these disorders have led several states to require perinatal depression screening and/or education. As President Obama recently commented, “…the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.” Policies to reduce family financial stressors contribute to maternal and child well-being. The 4 million U.S. families who will welcome a new baby this year deserve screening and comprehensive treatment for perinatal depression and anxiety, clinicians who embrace system-level change, and legislators who stand up for improved health for women and families.

Parenting from before conception - Recent studies reveal that parental history and experiences also exert effects through epigenomic information not contained in the DNA sequence, including variations in sperm and oocyte cytosine methylation and chromatin patterning, noncoding RNAs, and mitochondria. Transgenerational epigenetic effects interact with conditions at conception to program the developmental trajectory of the embryo and fetus, ultimately affecting the lifetime health of the child. 

- Roc, Nutrition Investigator
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