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You are what you eat…and so is your baby

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

We’ve all been told how important it is to eat well in order to stay healthy. Now, new research shows that what you eat when you’re pregnant can be as important for your baby as it is for you.

A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine shows that when mothers-to-be ate healthful foods, such as those that make up the so-called Mediterranean diet, their babies had fewer birth defects such as cleft palates and neural tube defects.

The Mediterranean diet focuses on vegetables, beans, fruits, grains and fish, and is lower in meat, dairy and “empty” carbs.

Before you panic if you’re reading this while gorging on burgers and fries, no, your baby isn’t going to be born with birth defects just because you’re taking a vacation from your diet. The birth defects researchers looked at in the study are quite rare to begin with. It’s just that they are rarer still among women who eat well.

But the study does hint at something we know: your baby’s development depends, in part, on the nutrients you consume. So, give your little one a head-start on a good future. You’ll be doing a favor for both of you.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Time to Deliver? Mother Nature Knows Best

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

For years, I’ve been sounding the alarm about Cesarean delivery on-demand, and have persuaded my patients that childbirth isn’t something you can simply pencil into your schedule when convenient. It’s not just that a baby needs all the time nature gives her within the womb to develop, and that delivering just a few days early can mean that lung development and other functions may be potentially compromised. Cesareans are major surgery, which brings inherent danger to both mom and newborn. Necessary Cesareans are often life-savers. Unnecessary Cesareans can be just the opposite.

And now, at last, the word is spreading.

The San Jose Mercury News reports:

Babies born early through induction or C-section without a medical reason are nearly twice as likely to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit, researchers say. They also are more likely to contract infections and need breathing machines, according to a 2009 study in the New England Journal of Medicine and a number of other reports.

“We are finding out that the last weeks of pregnancy really do count,” said Leslie Kowalewski, an associate state director for the March of Dimes.

“At 35 weeks, the brain is only two-thirds of what it will weigh at 40 weeks.” Many organizations are responding with programs designed to eliminate early elective deliveries. Most significantly, chapters of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have begun to notify doctors about the serious consequences of performing early elective births.

With luck, as information about potential consequences spreads, expectant mothers and their doctors will decide to let nature take her course, for the sake of the mom’s health and her baby’s.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

When New Moms – or New Dads – Get the Pregnancy Blues

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Most women are familiar with the term post-partum depression.  Start with all the stresses of adding a new member to the family – not just the financial burden, but the schedule upheaval, the sleep deprivation, and the demands of a tiny person who can only make his or her needs known by wailing. Add the wild surge of hormones flooding a woman’s body, and is it any wonder that she might not be the picture of serenity and assurance? Estimates vary on the prevalence but as many as 25 percent of new moms may experience some level of depression either before or after delivery.

That’s bad enough, but now a study suggests that new fathers, just like new mothers, can find themselves overwhelmed when baby makes three (or more).

“The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., found that 10.4% of men experienced serious depression at some point between his partner’s first trimester and one year after childbirth, more than double the depression rate for men in general. American men were more likely to experience prenatal or postpartum depression compared with men in other countries, 14.1% in the U.S. compared with 8.2% internationally.”

What can you do when the guy you depend upon to keep you sane is going through his own blue period?

Your most important step –the one you should take if either you or your partner starts to feel sadness, agitation or hopelessness – is to talk to your doctor. Don’t try to tough it out. Reach out for help at the first signs that something isn’t quite right. It’s possible that all you need to get back to your cheery old selves is a good night’s sleep, but sometimes, you need more. The good news is that help is available. But first, you have to be aware of the signs of depression.

Post-partum depression can be debilitating if you let it go, so take steps immediately to get yourself and your new family back into the swing of enjoying things together again.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Compared to white babies, twice as many African-American babies die in their first year of life

Monday, January 18th, 2010

As we celebrate the birthday of one of America’s greatest African-American leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, and we take pride in the leadership of our first African-American president, Barack Obama, it’s easy to assume that racial disparities are a thing of the past.

But our infant mortality rates tell us that that’s not so.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), infant mortality among African-American babies is more than twice that of white babies. Among the other troubling statistics in the CDC report:

  • African Americans had 1.8 times the sudden infant death syndrome mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites, in 2005.
  • African American mothers were 2.5 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to begin prenatal care in the 3rd trimester, or not receive prenatal care at all.
  • The infant mortality rate for African American mothers with over 13 years of education was almost three times that of Non-Hispanic White mothers in 2005.

America is still a country where people of color face discrimination at every turn, even if it’s less overt than it was in our past. Bias limits educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and it even limits the opportunity of pregnant women to get access to good healthcare.

If Dr. King could see us today, I know he’d be pleased at how far we’ve come. But if we haven’t provided our youngest and most vulnerable citizens equality in medical care, we still have a long way to go.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Labor & Delivery: Don’t try this at home

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Most women today have no idea how dangerous it once was for a woman to give birth. The maternal death rate today is about eight per 100,000 births.  When home births were in style, the maternal death rate was 83 per 100,000 births – 10 times the number of deaths.

Women today almost never die in childbirth because, when things go wrong during labor and delivery, medical professionals can step in and prevent emergencies from becoming tragedies.

Which is why I want to scream when I read nonsense like the following, from a website calling itself “Born Free.”

“Welcome to Bornfree! This site is based on the belief that childbirth is inherently safe and relatively painless provided we don’t live in poverty, and do not interfere either physically or psychologically. Drugs, machinery, and medical personnel are not only unnecessary in most cases, they are also no match for a woman’s own intellect and intuition.”

The site quoted above advocates for unassisted childbirth at home. No doctor. No midwife. And no professional help at the ready if something goes wrong.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t get too exercised over an obscure website. But, it’s how I found this website that has me troubled. It was featured in an article on ABC in the “Entertainment” section. The article mostly extolled the concept of women giving birth at home, with neither a midwife nor a doctor present, giving only the briefest nod to the caveats from an ob-gyn.

In the age of reality TV, maybe a piece about women risking their lives to experience “freebirth” makes good copy. Maybe, because it was in the Entertainment section, this quote from a mother who recently gave birth on her own didn’t raise any eyebrows: “…it is not risky if you do your homework.”

But ask an ob-gyn and you’ll get a much different albeit less entertaining quote.

Yes, so-called “freebirth” is risky. And no, you can’t mitigate the risk by doing “homework.” Approximately 40 percent of high-risk patients appear to be low-risk before labor and delivery. No amount of “homework” can prepare a woman for suddenly finding herself among those 40 percent. If she’s at home, without medical attention, she and her baby could be in serious danger.

Most certified nurse midwives are affiliated with hospitals today precisely because the unexpected can and does happen during childbirth and having medical and surgical teams within shouting distance can mean the difference between life and death. The birthing process is still the 11th leading cause of death in women between 15 and 44 years of age.

When I was in the military, we received a stat call about a home birth gone wrong. The woman lost all muscle tone in her uterus after the birth of her child. By the time the ambulance got her to Bethesda, she had bled to death.

So I’ve seen firsthand how “freebirth” can be a recipe for disaster.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Is baby fat a “pre-existing condition? Really?

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

You may have read the news that a family in Colorado was told their 4-month-old son would be denied health insurance by Rocky Mountain Health Plans because of a pre-existing condition: he was too chubby.

The child in question, baby Alex Lange, weighs just 17 lbs and is 25 inches long. That puts him in the 99th percentile according to the CDC but his pediatrician says the baby is perfectly healthy.

Although the insurance company’s spokesperson, Dr. Douglas Speedie, agreed that a baby can be healthy at little Alex’s weight, he said that the line has to be drawn somewhere. “It’s a calculation based on height, weight, and a fudge factor.”  But he also said “We’d like to see health care reform so that these things go away.”

Just think of that for a minute. Why does a health insurer claim there is a pre-existing condition where none exists? And if an insurer acknowledges that this is a flawed decision-making process, why doesn’t it act on its own to make “these things go away”? Does this make sense to you?

Me neither.

And that illustrates why we need health care reform. Right now, insurers can claim people have “pre-existing conditions” that they don’t actually have, and make other arbitrary decisions to deny people care. That must change and insurance companies will not change on their own … well, except in cases where their decisions are so ridiculous that they make the nightly news.

In baby Alex Lange’s case, the negative publicity convinced the insurer to reverse its decision. But the reason that Alex’s story got so much attention is that his daddy works for the NBC TV affiliate in Colorado that broke the story.

Most other people just get stuck with the insurance company’s arbitrary decisions.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

More media attention for the study

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Forbes reports on my study, showing that obese pregnant women should limit weight gain as does Medline.

Other media outlets giving the study prominent coverage are United Press International, Yahoo News, The Baltimore Sun, US News and World Report, and even the Times of India.

– Yvonne S. Thornton

My study on obesity and pregnancy in the news

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

I’m pleased to see that the media is getting the word out: obese pregnant women should be eating healthier diets and limiting their weight gain.

In the past few days, I’ve been interviewed by a number of news organizations about the study. You can see some of the reports at the following links:


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Science Daily

The Los Angeles Times

and Health Day

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Why newborns wear hats in the nursery

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

When I began my faculty OB practice at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center Lying-In Hospital in 1982, I made sure that all the babies I delivered were outfitted in little Thinsulate® turbans: blue for boys; pink for girls.

At first, some of the other obstetricians thought this looked a bit strange but I wasn’t making a fashion statement. Newborns can have difficulty stabilizing their body temperature when they first leave the womb. There is a precipitous drop in temperature from in utero existence (~99 degrees F.) to room temperature 72 to 75 degrees F. in the delivery room and the nursery. Up to 50 percent of your new baby’s body heat can escape through the head as he or she adjusts to life outside mom’s cozy body. This heat loss differential is lessened by drying the infant, placing him or her under a radiant warmer and covering its head.

Today, almost all hospitals cover newborns’ bald little noggins to compensate for this heat loss. As a side benefit, they do look cute in their blue and pink caps.

– Yvonne Thornton, MD, MPH