Early one evening late in my second trimester of pregnancy, I was standing in the dairy aisle of the grocery store, with one hand on my back and the other over the kicking baby in my distended belly. A young man approached me, initiated a conversation about the World Cup, and, casually, asked me if I’d like watch the game with him that weekend. “You’re pretty!” he whispered. I was shocked.
I wasn’t putting out a sexy vibe. (Not at all.) I had assumed that any male attention I receive in late pregnancy, including that from my husband, would be friendly, not sexual. Why would a man who is not the expectant father think pregnancy is sexy? But then other women told me similar stories about how they got hit on in third trimester. So I decided to look into it, and it turns out that a study on sexual attraction to pregnancy has recently come out.
A team of Swedish and Italian doctors, led by Emmanuele Jannini and Magnus Enquist, recruited nearly 2,200 men who had joined online fetish groups such as alt.sex.fetish and alt.sex.fetish.breastmilk. They presented a questionnaire that asked the respondents questions about their preferences for pregnant and lactating women. The survey also asked for the sex and age of each sibling, and whether the sibling is a full sibling or not (half-sibling or adopted child). Most respondents reported both a pregnancy and a lactation preference. The average age at which respondents became aware of their preference was about 18 years.
What Jannini and Enquist and their colleagues were searching for was evidence that there was something special about the upbringing of men that are secually aroused by pregnancy. They knew that a specific stimulus early in life can elicit sexual behavior when theat animal reaches sexual maturity. For instance, goats that are raised by sheep are sexually aaroused by sheep only. This is called sexual imprinting.
Is it possible that boys that are raised by women who are pregnant for much of their childhoods are unusually attracted to pregnant women?
It turns out, what’s good for the goat is good for the guy. The more exposed a man was to his mother being pregnant and breastfeeding when he was between 1.5 and 5 years old, the more likely he is, as an adult, to be sexually attracted to pregnant and breastfeeding women.
A younger sibling is the key to early exposure. The respondents who eroticized pregnancy and breastfeeding had significantly more younger siblings than expected by chance. Respondents with one sibling were older than their sister or brother in 66 percent of cases. Interstingly, siblings born of a different mother does not appear to be related to respondents’ sexual preferences. Only a boy’s own pregnant mother seemed to leave a sexual imprint.
Freud’s “oedipal phase,” from about 3 to about 5-6 years of age, only overlaps partially with the sensitive period suggested by this study’s data, the researchers are careful to point out. Sexual imprinting is different in that it’s motivated not by sexual drive but because the individual learns what’s normal during a sensitive phase of development and later seeks sexual partners that resemble his (or her) own parents.
What does this mean for women who are pregnant or plan to be pregnant? It means you may be able to predict how attracted your partner will be to you in late pregnancy. Does he have sibling born within five years after him? If so, he’s likelier to be turned on by your pregnant self.
As for the guy I met in the dairy aisle, I’d wager he had a younger brother or sister. I’d bet more on getting this right than the winner of the next World Cup.
*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, available October 11, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy.
For the nine-plus months of pregnancy, I dutifully downed fish oil pills. I had heard all about the virtues of essential fatty acids (especially DHA, docosahexaenoic acid), known collectively as omega-3s, which are found in fish such as salmon and sardines. These fats are involved in the development of new neurons and help form the cell walls — the structural support — of nerve cells. If the healthy brain is like a sponge, then the brain deprived of omega-3 is like a puddle.
Several years ago, in 2007, an enormous study funded by the National Institute of Health looked at the link between children’s scores on aptitude tests (at ages 6 months to 8 years) and their mother’s prenatal consumption of fish. It turned out that the kids whose moms ate fish more than twice weekly during pregnancy were significantly less likely to have low scores on cognitive tests. Low maternal seafood intake (two or fewer servings weekly) was also associated with increased risk of suboptimum outcomes for prosocial behavior, fine motor, communication, and social development scores. This was a huge deal. The nearly 12,000 expectant women who participated in the study were asked to record how much whole fish they ate, not fish oil supplements.
Naturally, this study — and smaller studies like it involving whole-fish consumption — inspired millions of pregnant women to focus on fish oil.
Problem is, not many of us want to or can afford to eat fish every day. Fears of mercury and PCB contamination are valid (many varieties of fish, such as tuna, have high levels that are toxic to fetuses). It’s not much of a stretch to say that fish oil pills are a better way to get your daily DHA.
But here’s the interesting part. Everyone has assumed that when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, the source — whole fish or fish oil pills –shouldn’t matter. Seems reasonable, but is it?
A few very recent fish oil studies cast doubt:
Results of fish oil pill supplementation range from neutral to negative…
• A review of six clinical trials (1280 women in total) involving fish oil pill supplementation during breastfeeding found no significant difference in children’s neurodevelopment: language development (intelligence or problem-solving ability, psychomotor development, motor development. In child attention there was a significant difference. For child visual acuity there was no significant difference. For language development at 12 to 24 months and at five years in child attention, weak evidence was found (one study) favouring the supplementation.
• At the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, researchers tracked the children of 2400 women who took DHA-rich fish oil pills in the last trimester of pregnancy. The use of these fish oil capsules compared with vegetable oil cap- sules during pregnancy did not result in improved cognitive and language development in their offspring during early childhood.
Other fish oil pill studies found disturbingly negative results:
• At the Universities of Copenhagen and Chapel Hill, researchers followed 120 Danish women who nursed their babies for four months after birth and took fish oil supplements (or olive oil pills). The children were tested in intervals up to seven years. The higher the early intake, the lower the child scored in speed of information processing, inhibitory control, and working memory tests. Boys whose mothers consumed fish oil had lower prosocial scores relative to the olive oil group.
Meanwhile, these recent studies strengthened the evidence that eating fish is brain-boosting:
• In a study that took place the Arctic, 154 11-year-old Inuit children took standardized tests for memory and verbal learning. Their scores were compared with their levels of DHA present in their cord blood at birth. Children who had higher cord plasma concentrations of DHA at birth achieved significantly higher scores on tests related to recognition memory processing. The source of DH in their mothers’ diets was fish and marine mammals. Intriguingly, the connection with higher test scores remained intact regardless of seafood-contaminant (PCB and mercury) amounts.
* A UK study of 217 nine-year-olds whose mothers had eaten oily fish in early pregnancy had a reduced risk of hyperactivity and children whose mothers had eaten fish (whether oily or non-oily) in late pregnancy had a verbal IQ that was 7.55 points higher than those whose mothers did not eat fish.
This is what I’d love to see: large studies that compare pregnant/nursing fish-eaters versus pill-poppers. Few researchers have tackled this, in part because we assume DHA works the same no matter how we get it, and because DHA from sources other than pills is difficult to measure or isolate. Interestingly, a study at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health compared height, weight and head circumference results of newborns whose mothers whose main source of DHA was fish versus pills. They found that fish-eaters generally gave birth to larger babies while fish-oil-pill-poppers had newborns with a smaller head circumference.
Is it possible that fish consumption boosts IQ, but fish oil pills do not?
It’s dumbfounding, the difference in results between whole fish and fish oil. The researchers that found negative results of supplementation on nursing infants speculated on what goes wrong. It may be that early intervention with fish oil pills results in an “environmental mismatch” between prenatal and postnatal life,” (e.g. the fetus is “programmed” in the womb to live in an environment without abundant DHA and is thrown off when inundated with these fats later on).
Another theory is that the timing in these recent fish oil pill studies is off. The critical period in which fish oil may influence brain growth may be in the first trimester of pregnancy or toward the end of the first year of life — not during the time periods in which women in these studies were taking fish oil pills. It may be that DHA has a “sweet spot” — an optimum level below and above which may be detrimental to the developing brain. Indeed, when researchers look at fish oil pill supplementation and DHA-deficient premature infants, the results are much rosier.
There’s another compelling explanation of why fish oil pills don’t yield the desired results: DHA doesn’t do its magic alone. Nutrients and proteins in fish and seafood, other than DHA, may be brain-boosters — or at least help us (and our fetuses or babies) to absorb or metabolize DHA better. All the fish oil in the sea can’t compensate for a bad diet.
In the US, a federal advisory recommends that pregnant women not eat more than two servings of fish weekly. This advice may be misguided given that fish such as salmon and sardines are high in DHA but low in mercury. Pop fish oil pills instead; they’re just as good– that’s been the message. But these recent studies point to a different truth.
Thus the case for fish, the whole fish, and nothing but the fish.
Food for thought.
*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy.
Officially known as T. gondii, toxoplasmosis (or toxo) is a single-celled protozoa transmitted by exposure to cat excrement and by eating raw meat. We can also get it by gardening, eating unwashed fresh veggies and fruit, walking with bare feet on feces-rich soil.
My doctor tests all pregnant women for toxo, as do many doctors in Europe. Infection rates hover around 12 percent in the United States. In Brazil about 67 percent are infected (due to warm climate), in Hungary 59 percent, and in France about 45 percent (for the latter, blame all that steak tartare and pink lamb).
We’ve known for decades that toxo does weird things to the brain because rats infected with the parasite act a bit strange. By strange I mean they’re not only afraid of cat scents, they’re strangely aroused by them. And because they seek out cats, they’re often consumed, and in being consumed they infect the cats, completing toxo’s lifecycle. This is how the parasite perpetuates — by puppeteering. It manipulates rodents to sacrifice themselves to infect other cats and other rats, and so on.
Toxo may also invade and manipulate the human brain, which shares much of the same anatomy and neurotransmitters with rats — although mind control here is different (cats don’t usually eat humans, so there’s no evolutionary pressure on the parasite to tweak its effect on people). Paristologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague found that people with a latent infection tend to be more apprehensive, guilt-prone, self-doubting, and insecure. They have slower reaction times, especially if they also lack a certain blood protein, and three times as likely to get into traffic accidents due to impaired attention or reflexes. Infected women tend to be warmer-hearted, dutiful, moralistic, conforming, easy-going, persistent, and more outgoing and promiscuous. Infected men tend to be more jealous, rigid, slow-tempered, rule-flaunting, emotionally unstable, and impulsive.
Correlation is not causation, as scientists say when fascinating associations like this arise. But toxo may have an impact on personality and behavior because causes slight brain inflammation and alters its host’s levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and anticipation (and also movement). The parasite does this by producing an enzyme called hydroxylase, which makes dopamine.
Dramatic as this sounds, most people are completely oblivious that toxo haunts their cells. Only pregnant women are commonly tested. And I’m one of them. Because I’m a hypochondriachal life-long cat owner who once worked on a farm, travels extensively, and doesn’t always scrub her veggies vigorously, I’m convinced I’ve been infected.
The nurse doesn’t think it’s an issue. “Not much happens if you’re positive,” she says, and shrugs. Her body language suggests it’s a silly test.
“Unless it’s a recent infection it doesn’t matter. We can tell by the antibodies if you’ve been infected in the last few months. If so, we give you antiparasitic drugs.”
Simple as that.
From a medical perspective, what she says is true. The risk to a fetus depends on the timing of infection and recent infection has the most disastrous consequences. If you happen to become infected with toxoplasmosis while pregnant, or soon before, the parasite or its toxins may cross over the placenta to infect your baby’s nervous system. Babies born to mothers infected in the first half of pregnancy often have shrunken or swollen brains and mental retardation. If infected in the second half, babies may not show symptoms at birth yet central nervous system problems may emerge years later. These babies are at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia — delusions, hallucinations — later in life, likely due to altered levels of dopamine triggered by the parasite.
The nice news is that if you’ve been infected for years before pregnancy you probably won’t pass toxo to your baby, nor will you likely have any obvious signs of infection (although cysts form in the brain). According to Dr. Flegr, only an active infection in the mom suggests a causal link between infection and her baby’s temperament. This is because your immune system usually keeps the parasite in check. But don’t think it’s completely asymptomatic.
In the past decade or so, studies have found that moms with dormant toxo infections have more sons (up to two boys for every girl), and those fetuses develop slightly more slowly than other babies. Perhaps there are other side effects that are undocumented.
Reading up on the science of prenatal infection I get reflective. Viruses, bacteria, and other parasites have always entered us — and some, such as our mitochondrial DNA (originally a bacterium), have become part of us and we can not live without them. Ancient viruses now exist deactivated or defanged in our DNA (in fact, genes from the placenta are thought to be a legacy of ancient viruses) Some viruses may be reactivated, like half-cured villains released from prison, and are thought to be a cause of cancer. Some invaders, initially dangerous, have converted to communalism, such as the thousands of good-guy varieties of healthy gut bacterial that make digestion possible. Strange but true: there are more bacterial than human genes in our bodies.
In a way, pregnancy has made me less fixed on the notion that my self is a singular identity over which I have total control. The fetus is me but not me, and she has changed me in ways I can’t yet fathom. The line between self and other is getting fuzzier.
But as philosophical as I get about self and other, me and microbe, my heart still races when I call the nurse to read my test results.
Negative for toxoplasmosis.
I’m relieved. Truth is, the only parasite I really don’t mind carrying is the baby.