Science, the journal, has published a special issue on parenting. Over 10 articles on parenting are included in the issue that cover a diverse range of topics from genetics, to assisted reproduction, to gestation effects, to breast milk and beneficial gut bacteria. The special issue on parenting is meant to help provide insights on how parenting equips offspring to thrive, grow and eventually become parents themselves.
One of the articles in this special issue deals with what an expectant mother eats and how this can affect the baby’s food preferences. Some taste preferences are known to be genetically determined but there have been many studies published that have suggested that idiosyncratic food preferences are learned. Both human and animal studies have shown that love of different flavors may start while in the womb.
Another article discusses a study on orphans in Bucharest. Children in the orphanage who were raised with virtually no parenting were studied. Children that were taken into the Bucharest Early Intervention Project in 2000 were compared with children who remained living in institutions. While the study has been considered controversial, the study was also said to be well-controlled. The study showed that those who remained in an institution after two years old had major problems with cognitive development. If intervention occurred before two years old, children were able to catch up with their peers.
A study on maternal mental illness reported that more than 500,000 women have postpartum depression each year. The rate is even higher for teen and low-income mothers. For many mothers with depression, symptoms began during pregnancy and they also had anxiety. The study also showed that maternal mental illness affected infant brain development and future social and emotional health. This was believed to be due to inadequate prenatal care and impaired parenting practices.
Epigenomic information, not within the DNA sequences that are passed on in sperm and egg cells, was the topic of another research article. There is an increasing amount of information being discussed on how the age and environmental exposures of both the mother and father affect offspring. The conditions at conception along with epigenetic effects of methylation and chromatic patterning, mitochondria and noncoding RNAs play a role in what a child inherits. This means biological parenting can be said to commence even before birth, and even before conception.
Flexible parenting is discussed in one of the articles in the special issue on parenting. Flexible parenting is considered in response to changes in the environment. Few studies have quantified how individuals change their responses to changing environments, especially social environments in which both parents and offspring contribute. This phenomenon is discussed in terms of co-evolution.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) has been highly successful as an assisted reproduction technique and the estimate for the number of healthy babies born as a result of IVG is about five million. While the immediate condition of a newborn is assessed when IVF was employed, few studies have looked at longer term conditions. Children who were conceived with IVF may have subtle cognitive differences compared to children conceived naturally. The first “test tube” baby, Louise Brown, is only 36 years old. Most children who were conceived using IVF are still young and studies are needed to assess the longer term effects of IVF.
By Margaret Lutze