What to expect when you're expecting? Crazy headlines about pregnancy risks

Science-ish looks at the news terrifying soon-to-be parents

Getty Images

With the global population ballooning to seven billion, Science-ish wonders whether journalists around the world are in on a conspiracy to lower birth rates by scaring would-be parents with crazy stories about pregnancy risks. Consider the headlines this week: We learned that “depression in pregnancy can slow a child’s development” and that a mother’s fish and mercury intake is linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity-disorder behaviours in her kids.

This isn’t just the result of a slow news week. Science-ish has been tracking the health stories targeted at expectant parents over the last year, and they have ranged from the silly to the farcical, and always with a dash of fear mongering.

Last September, the BBC reported that eating low-fat yogurt—not the Greek, or half-fat types—during pregnancy may induce asthma and hay fever in children. The Guardian reported on a study that linked a mother’s sleeping position to stillbirths, recommending specifically that she sleep on her left side or else risk having one. Would moms be able to sleep at all after that chilling report? Fox News wrote: “Mother’s hypertension during pregnancy may affect child’s IQ later in life” and that “Women who get pregnant while dieting increase babies’ obesity risk.” And there was no shortage of reporting on the scary chemicals in our environment that can harm wee ones, even before conception. A telling headline from Mother Nature Network: “BPA exposure linked to abnormal egg development.”

In an effort to figure out where and how media reports go so off the rails, Science-ish called the lead author of the new study on mercury, fish consumption, and ADHD behaviours in children. Sharon Sagiv of the Boston University School of Public Health explained that the problem—in the reporting on her study and others—is that research is too often taken out of context, lonely islands isolated from the body of literature on the same subject.

“I would never use a single study to base a recommendation on,” she said. Different studies on the same thing can have vastly different conclusions; they should be taken together as a whole to correct the quirks, biases or methodological flaws in the one-offs. “When you read a health headline, put it in perspective,” she concluded.

In fact, she said her newest study—published in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine—is consistent with the body of literature that shows eating fish during pregnancy is important to neurodevelopment but that there are adverse effects related to eating too much mercury. On the specifics of the ADHD link, she said that the research is fairly new. As well, there were some limitations to her study: the participant dropout rate was high, which means that the findings may have been skewed; mothers’ fish consumption was self-reported and people are not always reliable sources of information about their eating habits; and the study was based on a relatively small group of people living in one community, not necessarily a representative sample.

“While I’m glad this study is getting press,” she said, “my hesitation is that people read these stories and change their behaviours based on one study.”

Dr. Helle Kieler, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has looked at the effects of anti-depressant use in moms—a source of much anxiety in the headlines. In an email to Science-ish, she wrote that it’s difficult to give general recommendations for medications during pregnancy, but if there are safe and effective alternative treatments available, parents should explore them. “This is the case for mild and moderate depression and anxiety disorders, where psychotherapy could be offered to a greater extent instead of SSRIs,” she added. “We know very little about the effects and adverse effects of SSRIs during pregnancy.”

Her advice to expectant parents was to go beyond media reports before panicking or modifying behaviour. “Find out what kind of study was reported,” she said. “Was it an animal study or were humans involved. What kind of risks are reported. If relative risks, one would want to know in relation to what. Was it a rare or more common outcome and did they report absolute risks.”

With the hope of soothing the worries of expectant parents, Science-ish conducted an informal survey with researchers who look at pregnancy and safety, asking for their evidence-based advice. Most of it was plain common sense, the stuff your grandmother would tell you. Eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight. Don’t smoke. If you drink, make sure it’s only half a glass and infrequently. Don’t use drugs, and do your research* if you need to use medications because we simply don’t know the long-term effects of many of them. That boring stuff doesn’t make the news, though. So Science-ish would add: take the headlines with a grain of salt.

*Check out the Science-ish guide to searching for health information on the web.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at the Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.