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Annie Murphy Paul: A Writer Explores Fetal Origins

By now, I know the look. It's an expression that mingles curiosity, hope and apprehension. It's worn by the women who approach me at book signings and speaking events, even while shopping at the supermarket. They want to know: What should I do when I'm pregnant? Or: Now that I've already had my kids, what did I do wrong?

I understand their interest and their worry. There's an emerging body of research demonstrating that our health and well-being are influenced by our time in the womb. Scientists are studying the fetal origins of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and investigating new possibilities for preventing them before birth.

So, eat fish, I tell the women who want to know more, but make sure it's the low-mercury kind. The omega-3 fatty acids in seafood are associated with higher verbal intelligence and better social skills in school-age children. Exercise, I say. Research suggests that fetuses benefit from their mothers' physical activity.

Protect yourself from toxins and pollutants, which are linked to birth defects and lowered IQ.

Don't worry too much about stress, I reassure them. Research shows that moderate stress during pregnancy is associated with accelerated infant brain development.

But seek help if you think you might be suffering from depression. The babies of depressed women are more likely to be born early and at low birth weight. They may be more irritable and have more trouble sleeping.

And, I add, eat chocolate. It's associated with a lower risk of the high blood pressure condition known as preeclampsia.

If I had more time -- if we weren't standing in the aisle of the supermarket, other shoppers elbowing past -- I'd tell them that my immersion in fetal origins research made me less anxious about being pregnant, not more. It made me see pregnancy in a new light: as a scientific frontier, and an opportunity to improve the health and well-being of the next generation. Pregnancy isn't just a nine-month wait for birth, but a crucial period unto itself: a staging ground for the rest of life.

Before we part, I tell them one thing more: that being pregnant is a lot like raising a child. All we can do is try our best, but we have to wait to see how it turns out.

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