Monday, January 31, 2011

Pregnant Mothers are Carrying their Grandchildren

Pregnant Mothers are Carrying their Grandchildren

Dear Birth Peeps,
Yesterday I went dancing with my friend Sharon, who is a nurse-midwife. She asked me what I was up to, and I mentioned I was researching the safety of prenatal ultrasound and she immediately said she was not comfortable with prenatal ultrasound, “It hasn’t been researched enough.” She told me when parents ask her to order an early ultrasound, she asks them why. When they say they want to know what colors to decorate the nursery and what colors of clothes to buy, she tells them to be safe, “Buy yellow or green!”

Mothers and fathers should consider that in order to determine the baby’s gender, ultrasound waves are pointed directly at, and are heating, the genitals of their developing baby. Many babies are exposed to ultrasound multiple times during pregnancy, some are getting even more exposure from the keepsake (or “4-D”) pictures taken at the mall (which can take up to an hour). No one can be absolutely sure what effects this popular practice is having on the long-term health of the child; or how much, how often, or at what gestation it becomes unsafe.

At what point do we become cautious? Whom do we trust? Many people say ultrasound is safe, but is it too soon to say? How do we know for certain that sending in high frequency waves of heat pointed directly at the heart and genitals of our unborn will not have consequences during their adult lifetime?

These questions call to mind another prenatal intervention that was believed at the time to be safe, and yet was later found to have caused serious genital, brain and behavior problems in the offspring, and even in the third generation!(1) Fading from public memory now is the era when diethylstilbestrol (DES) birth defects were discovered. Have you heard of DES daughters? Well, there are also DES sons and DES grandchildren.

I’d like to present a little review of this obstetric bungle from the US Center for Disease Control:

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a synthetic estrogen that was first manufactured in 1938. The prevailing theory at the time was that miscarriages and premature births occurred because women did not produce enough natural estrogen. So, in the name of prevention, between 1938-1971, doctors prescribed DES to an estimated 5 to 10 million pregnant women—and their unborn children--to prevent miscarriages and avoid other pregnancy problems. Hundreds of thousands of DES sons and daughters were also born in Canada, Europe and Australia between the 1940s and 1980s.

In 1953, published research showed that DES did not prevent miscarriages or premature births. However, DES continued to be prescribed until 1971. Does anybody ever practice evidence-based medicine?

In 1971, about thirty years after the practice of prescribing DES began, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a bulletin advising physicians to stop prescribing DES to pregnant women because a rare vaginal cancer was being found in girls and women who had been exposed to DES before birth.(2)

DES, believed to be safe, even though ineffective, was in fact not safe. Later research classified DES as a carcinogen and teratogen (Maydl, etl. 1983). For years, there was a huge scramble to confirm or disprove the claim that DES caused vaginal cancer in women. Before long, mothers were taking their daughters to be screened (and sometimes treated) by a gynecologist, because this rare form of cancer was found in girls as young as 8 years old!

And what about our sons: DES sons? The scope of health problems linked to DES includes: reproductive tract abnormalities, testicular cancer, behavior effects such as depressive disorders, and sexual differentiation disorders of the brain and body.(3)

DES seemed safe. The babies exposed to DES looked healthy and weighed in just fine at birth. Not all birth defects are visible at birth. Nobody knew for thirty years.

As I write this blog, until long-term effects across generations can be determined or disproven, my intention is to raise awareness and caution among both parents and birth peeps. It is my hope that we can exercise more patience, more "wait and see," more hands-on assessment. For decades, health practitioners made, and can still make, a reasonably accurate assessment of how the uterus is growing, the position of the baby, and some people develop very good skills at estimating fetal weight (I’d like to find a study to see if a skilled practitioner is as accurate or more accurate than ultrasound). Evidence-based research is not showing that multiple ultrasounds improves the baby’s health at birth.

If the baby seems like it is growing slowly, eat better and eat more! Food grows babies and placentas; ultrasounds won’t make the baby and placenta grow.

If a mother has gestational diabetes, give her excellent nutritional counseling so she can eat well and maintain her blood sugars. Weekly ultrasounds won’t prevent, or treat, a baby growing too fast from a diet high in calories, sugar and fat.



After-thought: Some readers who are learning that there may be possible risks with prenatal ultrasound have already had one, or even a few. To date, there is no conclusive evidence that a single exposure during pregnancy will have long-term effects on your baby. Begin where you are. Give the recommendation for ultrasound serious consideration, look for alternative ways to achieve and maintain a healthy pregnancy.

1 Titus_Ernstoff, L., Troisi, R. et. al. (2009, November). Birth defects in the sons and daughters of women who were exposed in utero to diethylstilbestrol (DES).

2 Retrieved from:

3 Kerlin, S. (2005). Prenatal Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES) in Males and Gender-Related Disorders: Results from a 5-year study.
[A very thorough] paper prepared for the International Behavioral Development Symposium 2005


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