Unborn babies deserve protection from harm

John Freeman
Monday, March 19, 2012

Does the behaviour of women during pregnancy have a long-term effect on children? This critical question seems difficult to answer because many factors will impact on children's health outcomes such as poverty, housing, childhood diseases and schooling.

However, researchers in the US are carrying out a large-scale controlled test for which there is overwhelming evidence of a direct effect of maternal behaviour – and that relates to fasting during Ramadan. A foetus in its first month with a fasting mother is more than 20 per cent more likely to suffer from visual, hearing or learning disabilities as an adult.

The effect is magnified when Ramadan falls in a summer month, with a longer period of fasting, and also when the mother lives further from the equator, when the day length is greater.

The NHS-supported booklet Ramadan Health Guide says that all those who are pregnant – and some others – are exempted from fasting. They are required instead to make up the days missed later, or give a sum to charity. So all those who come into professional contact with Muslim women who may become pregnant during Ramadan should be already advising them appropriately.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that this might improve the long-term life chances of 10,000 people every year in the UK – a worthwhile outcome for almost no cost.

There are plenty of other behaviours that may have a long-term deleterious effect on the unborn child. Foetal alcohol syndrome is characterised by physical damage and cognitive and developmental malfunction. Poor diet is correlated to childhood obesity and maternal smoking leads to lower average birth weight.

It therefore seems to be unquestionable that irreparable damage may be done by the time a child is born. We need to publish the evidence on these issues and make it part of the public and profess­ional debate, and to change our practices in response. That requires education, social care and health professionals to work together with common messages in a sustained way – not just in antenatal classes or in family education. Unborn children deserve no less from us.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children’s services and is now a freelance consultant   Read his blog at cypnow.co.uk/freemansthinking

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