Tag Archives: Babies

Pregnant women living near oil and gas wells are 40% more likely to birth low-weight babies

Pregnant women have a higher risk of having low birth weight babies if they live close to active oil and gas wells, especially in rural areas, according to a new study in California. The findings add to previous studies that had already warned over the impacts of living near fossil fuel extraction sites.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The study, which is one of the largest of its kind, looked at the medical records of nearly three million births by moms living within 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) of at least one oil or gas well between 2006 and 2015. The researchers targeted births in both rural and urban areas, as well as pregnant women living near both active and inactive oil and gas sites.

According to the findings, pregnant women who lived in rural areas within 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to birth underweight babies and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age, compared to people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only.

Even among term births, babies were 1.3 ounces (36 grams) smaller, on average, than those of their counterparts. Newborns are considered to have low birth weight when their weight is less than 5lb and 8oz (2.4 kilos). Having a low weight can cause a wide array of short-term development issues.

“Being born of low birth weight or small for gestational age can affect the development of newborns and increase their risk of health problems in early childhood and even into adulthood,” said in a statement Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior author of the paper.

Morello-Frosch and her team also found a link between living in close proximity to oil and gas wells and small babies born in urban areas. Nevertheless, it was much less significant than in rural communities – something they explain by differences in air quality, maternal occupation, and housing conditions.

Growing risks

The findings add to a growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil and gas wells to a variety of adverse birth outcomes such as premature birth, heart defects, and low birth weight. Oil and gas production has been on the rise in the US in recent years due to the expansion of non-conventional techniques like fracking.

Fracking is a method of extracting oil and gas trapped in shale and other rock formations. It involves pumping large amounts of water down a well at high pressure, along with sand and chemicals that make up a tiny fraction of the volume. The technique transformed the US energy landscape, although California hasn’t seen as much changes as other states.

In California, where the study was carried out, oil production has declined over the past three decades. Last year, Governor Gavin Newson issued stricter rules for companies to obtain fracking permits. There are now 282 fracking permits waiting for review in the state.

“This study is the first to characterize the implications for perinatal health of active oil and gas production in the state, and I think the results can inform decision-making in regulatory enforcement and permitting activities,” Morello-Frosch said. “Results from health studies such as ours support recent efforts to increase buffers between active well activities and where people live, go to school and play.”

The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives

Breast milk given intranasally could benefit preemies with severe brain injuries

Breast milk offers excellent, balanced, and healthy nutrition for babies providing all the proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that young bodies need to stay healthy. Mothers create new antibodies in real time, which help strengthen young immune systems. But that’s not all. Recent studies have shown that breast milk is more beneficial than we think.

In 2010, researchers at Lund University and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden discovered a substance known as HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made LEthal to Tumour cells) found in breast milk that can kill cancer cells.

The HAMLET molecule. HAMLET (Human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells)


In 2014, researchers from the US and Australia found that feeding an exclusively human milk (EHM) diet to premature infants reduces the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a serious condition primarily affecting preemies.

A study in 2018 from the University of Helsinki showed that babies breastfed for at least six months have less antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their gut compared with infants breastfed for a shorter period of time.

Another study, published also in 2018, from the University of Edinburgh showed that babies born before their due date, show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula. Here’s another important discovery to add to the list.

Intranasal breast milk application.  


Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany have observed that breast milk administered intranasally (via the nose) could protect preemies who have experienced severe brain injuries. This is the first report on additional nasal breast milk application in very low birth weight preterm infants with severe brain injury observing a beneficial effect on neurodevelopment in preterm infants.

The research, published in The European Journal of Pediatrics, was based on the idea that breastmilk has stem cells (neurotrophins and mesenchymal stem cells) which can potentially repair brain injuries in preemies. Neurotrophins are molecules that can promote growth and survival of neural cells. Stem cells are pluripotent cells, meaning that they can develop into virtually any cell type that is needed by the body. The research is still in its early stages and the study is small (with only 31 extremely low birth weight preemies) but the concept is promising and deserves further studies.

If the international community is serious about meeting the health targets set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it must focus its efforts to encourage more mothers to feed their newborns breast milk and make it easier for mothers to actually breastfeed (it’s not easy!).


Babies reason long before they can speak

Our ability to use complex communication through symbols, such as language, is thought to be at the core of mankind’s superior reasoning. But a new study which followed one-year-old babies found that they were able to reason by process of elimination well before they could articulate anything more meaningful than “goo goo ga ga.” It follows that language and higher reasoning are not as intertwined as scientists used to think.


Credit: Pixabay.

A logical tiny human

Psychologists at Johns Hopkins University studied 48 infants aged 12 to 18 months. The babies looked at a very simple animation which showed two objects: a flower and a dinosaur. After the babies were given the time to study the two objects, a barrier was raised in the animation, which obstructed the objects from view. An all-powerful cup then scooped the dinosaur from behind the curtain (the infants can see the dinosaur being scooped).

What happened next depended on whether the infants were classed in one of two groups. In the first group, when the barrier was raised, the remaining object was the flower, as should logically be the case. In the second group, lifting the barrier perplexingly revealed no flower but another dinosaur.

Because the infants are not able to articulate their thoughts, the John Hopkins researchers used eye-tracking to infer what was on the children minds. When the barrier was raised and the dinosaur showed, the infant’s gaze lingered significantly longer on the scene with the second dinosaur. This implies that they can sense that something is not at all expected — they’re confused, as any adult would be.

One of the most important logical building blocks of higher reasoning is the ability to imagine multiple outcomes and to eliminate those that are inconsistent. Scientists formally call this process disjunctive syllogism. For instance, if only A or B is true, and A is false, then the only possible outcome is that B is true. It sounds very simple but, fundamentally speaking, this is a hugely powerful ability, which most creatures lack.

Intuitively, the findings make sense. When we reason, we silently do so by talking to ourselves. The findings show that preverbal infants work much in the same way, using the same type of serial reasoning, way before any meaningful language abilities had developed. Previously, psychologists at Emory University and Bucknell University determined that infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age.

“We found that within the first year of life, children can engage in this type of logical reasoning, which was previously thought to be beyond their reach until the age of about four or five years,” says Stella Lourenco, the Emory University psychologist who led the 2015 study.

Not too long ago, infants were thought to be incapable of higher cognitive functions. Up until the in 1970s, the prevailing philosophy in cognitive psychology was that children younger than seven were mostly illogical and incapable of transitive inference — the ability to deduce that if Item B is related to Item C and Item C is related to Item D, then Item B must be related to Item D. But just because they can’t articulate, that doesn’t mean infants aren’t capable of reasoning. On a practical level, the findings could one day lead to new techniques that diagnose cognitive disabilities early on. In the long term, this sort of research will inspire more work that might reveal what the very youngest humans think.

“It’s about launching a whole body of work that’s going to emerge over the coming decade,” said Justin Halberda, a psychologist at John Hopkins, who was not involved in the study but wrote an accompanying analysis in about the new paper published in Science. “It’s an invitation,” he told The Verge. 



Christmas baby.

Regardless of culture or country, people make more babies during the holidays

The post-holiday birth spike isn’t caused by any hard-wired biological drive — its causes are social.

Christmas baby.

Image credits Jill Wellington.

Nothing says Christmas cheer quite like getting a present — except, perhaps, getting it on. It’s an oft-remarked (but still funny) observation that birth rates tend to peak in September, nine months after the holidays. Up to now, research has focused on linking this post-holiday “baby boom” to seasonal changes in human biology. But a new paper from the Indiana University and the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência in Portugal raises an interesting question: what if this isn’t a result of biology, but of society?

Under the mistletoe

To find out, the team probed into the “collective unconscious” of web searches and Twitter posts to get an idea of how people feel during the holidays. Their analysis extended to almost 130 countries and looked at sex-related Google search terms from 2004 to 2014, as well as about 10% of all public Twitter posts over the same period.

The analysis revealed that interest in sex peaks “significantly” during major cultural or religious holidays (corresponding to a greater use of the word “sex” or other sexual terms in web searches). For the countries included in the study with available birth-rate data, this peak in sexual interest corresponded broadly with an increase in births nine months later.

“The rise of the web and social media provides the unprecedented power to analyze changes in people’s collective mood and behavior on a massive scale,” says co-lead author Luis M. Rocha, a professor in the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. “This study is the first ‘planetary-level’ look at human reproduction as it relates to people’s moods and interest in sex online.”

To make sure they weren’t picking up on an effect of biology and mistaking it for a social one, the team included multiple cultures in their study — and this correlation held. The greatest spike in sexual and sex-associated interest occurred during major holiday celebrations: around Christmas in Christian-majority countries, respectively Eid-al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, in Muslim-majority countries. The results for Eid-al-Fitr are especially significant because this holiday doesn’t have a fixed date and falls on a different day each year. However, the effect shifted in accordance with the holiday — a very strong argument in favor of its cultural roots.

Everybody’s getting festive

Moreover, the team included countries from both the Southern and Northern hemispheres. This was done in an effort to address a common limitation of previous studies on this subject, which tended to focus on smaller geographical contexts, usually in Western countries in the Northern hemisphere.

Despite the fact that seasons are reversed on opposite sides of the globe, the spikes in online sexual interest and birth rates occurred at the same time everywhere. The researchers thus conclude that the effects aren’t tied to a biological shift caused by changes in daylight, temperatures, or food availability.

“We didn’t see a reversal in birth rate or online interest in sex trends between the Northern and Southern hemispheres — and it didn’t seem to matter how far people lived from the equator,” Rocha said. “Rather, the study found culture — measured through online mood — to be the primary driver behind cyclic sexual and reproductive behavior in human populations.”

To understand what drives this increase, the team reviewed word choices in public Twitter posts (a method known as a “sentiment analysis”) which revealed that the causes are quite simple — as a whole, we just feel happier, safer, and calmer during the holidays. When they went looking for similar collective mood patterns at other times of the year, the researchers found that these too link to an increase in online sexual interest. Thanksgiving and Easter, however, seem exempt from this improvement in mood.

Rocha adds that it’s possible people feel a “greater motivation to grow their families” during the holidays. It’s not hard to see why — there’s a great cultural emphasis on children and gift-giving to children during this time of the year. Christmas especially evokes the ideas of birth, children, and family (baby Jesus), all of which helps put people in a loving, “family mood”, she explains.

The findings are more than an interesting tidbit. Rocha says that the results can be used by public health researchers who are trying to determine the best times to launch public awareness campaigns for safe sex in developing countries, which, more often than not, lack reliable birth-rate data.

“These types of analyses represent a powerful new data source for social science and public policy researchers,” she concludes.

The paper “Human Sexual Cycles are Driven by Culture and Match Collective Moods” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Fledgling dad turns daughter’s sleeping patterns into an amazing graphic

First-time parent and long-time industrial designer Andrew Elliot created this stunning visualization from six-months’ worth of his daughter’s sleeping habits.

Image credits Andrew Elliot.

The graph had huge success on Reddit, and it’s easy to see why — it looks awesome. But it’s also a very good representation of what scientists know about sleep cycles in infants. Elliot built this chart to help him better keep track of his daughter’s sleeping patterns — which might sound easy now, while you’re sitting comfortably in your office chair pretending to be productive. It is however anything but that when you’re a parent.

“I was recording her sleeping times because as a first-time parent I thought I would do whatever it took to keep her alive (so far so good),” Elliot wrote (she’s now two years old).

“When you’re a new, sleep-deprived parent, it’s hard to notice changes in patterns like this, but the visualizations make it very clear.”

So here’s how to read the chart. Elliot used a circle because it best represents the thing we associate with time — a clock. Each concentric circle represents a 24-hour period with midnight centered at the top. The chart starts with day 1 in the middle.

Waking hours are marked in tan. Periods of sleep and inactivity are blue.

Her first days were spent mostly sleeping, as most newborns do. They usually clock in about 18 hours of sleep a day, in several bouts. As they grow, sleep occurs less frequently but in longer intervals at a time. One nap during the day and a long sleep at night is common by the time they’re toddlers — this is less sleep overall, but better consolidated.

One month into it

The first month-ish period in the middle of the graphic is a hectic mix of tan and blue. The sleep patterns are erratic here because newborn babies don’t have a fully mature circadian clock, or sleep-wake cycle. Usually, this fully develops when the child is around four months old. It’s the bane of all fresh parents‘ sleep time, and the bout of many a sit-comm.

“I especially like the flip in the early months where she mostly slept through the day and (was) awake at night,” Elliot wrote.

“It was terrible going through that stage. I didn’t know whether my mind was over-exaggerating it, but when seeing it here it is clear.”

Elliot’s daughter suffered from acid reflux when she was very young, so she could not lie on her back to sleep. He and his wife took turns holding the baby upright on their chest so she could sleep. She thus got most of her rest during the day while they were awake — which is the reason the chart is tan-heavy on the top during that period.

For Elliot, the his daughter’s early days at home were especially challenging. She suffered from acid reflux when was really young, which meant she could not lie on her back when sleeping. Elliot and his wife took turns holding her upright on their chest to let her sleep. Therefore, she got most of her rest during the day while they were awake.

“We were prescribed some medication to give her for the reflux and this started to clear it up within a few days and that is where her sleeping patterns suddenly settled out into a more logical and consistent pattern,” he says.

So is this chart representative of all babies? To an extent yes, but it’s really hard to generalize starting from a sample of one. It does show, however, just how hard a time parents have until their child’s circadian rhythm settles into a more conventional mold.

Elliot now plans to carve the graphic into a piece of wood and use it as a clock-face to hang in his daughter’s room.

rubick cube

What babies can see that you can’t anymore

rubick cube

Credit: DALE PURVES, American Scientist

Check out the red chips in these two Rubik cubes. Though these chips in the two pictures might look like the same colour, only shaded differently, the ones on the left are actually orange and the ones on the right are purple. Don’t stress yourself too much with this, because it will likely get you nowhere. A four-month infant, however, can spot these differences instantly.

That’s because very young babies haven’t yet developed a crucial perceptual skill that enables us to navigate the world properly, something called perceptual consistency, also known as Object Constancy, or Constancy Phenomenon.

To understand how this works, we first need to establish that what our retinas record is different from the images decoded by the brain that we know as sight. This evolutionary adaption appeared because otherwise our minds would simply be engulfed in chaos by the constantly shifting lighting conditions, but also the shape of objects.

Imagine what it’s like to be consciously aware of people growing physically bigger as they approach you, objects changing shape as they move or colours changing as the lighting changes. You won’t be able to do anything as you try to wrap your mind around all the chaos. That’s why our brains rely on a perception and not recording, making it so things like site, shape, lightness and colour are consistent. Although a bus moving towards a bus stop changes in size from a dot to twice your height, we don’t perceive it as having grown in size — we’re capable of realising the bus has the same size, rectangular shape, and brightness as it had in the distance.

It’s really a game changer, although some faulty information like optical illusions sometimes slip in — a small price to pay, really, for the ability to make sense of the world. But little babies don’t have this consistency fully developed yet. The three snails in the image below, for instance, were featured in a recent paper published by Japanese psychologists at the Chuo University led by Professor Jiale Yang. Which two images are the most similar out of the three?

Computer generated renditions of the same 3D object. Credit: YANG ET AL,

Computer generated renditions of the same 3D object. Credit: YANG ET AL.

If you answered A and B, you’re wrong — it’s B and C, as these two images of the snail are the most similar in terms of pixel intensity. Even though the physical disparities between B and C are small, we adults think this pair looks the most different. Infants, however, were able to identify the right discrepant pair almost immediately, the researchers found.

Of course, you can’t ask a baby which pair is the most similar because “ga, ga, guu”. Instead, Yang and colleagues enlisted  42 babies, aged 3 to 8 months and put them in front of a computer screen with images rendered from real 3-D objects such as the snails. Previously, it was established that when babies are presented with a novel object, they spend more time looking at it than a familiar item. The researchers found the babies looked at the first and second image for an equivalent amount of time, suggesting they found both images novel and different.

The data shows infants aged 3 to 4 months old have a striking ability to spot physical disparities between images, but this ability is gradually lost starting at the age of 5 months. Around age 7 to 8 months, the babies start to discriminate surface properties like glossy vs. matte and lose this skill.

Previously, other research found that as babies grow up they lose other perceptual skills that adults don’t have like being able to differentiate between very subtle differences in the faces of monkeys, or the  ability to distinguish speech sounds in languages other than spoken by their own families. Four-month-old babies are also able to tell which crossed foot actually got a tickle, unlike adults who often mistake which hand is getting touched when they cross their hands, for instance.

In other words, we’re most objective during our very first months of life but gradually slip into subjectivity as we age.

Humans got smarter to care for needy infants, making them more helpless in the process

University of Rochester researchers developed a new evolutionary model that suggests human intelligence developed to meet the demands of our infants, in a self-reinforcing cycle: bigger brains led to shorter pregnancies, requiring parents to have even bigger brains.

If babies could speak at birth, banging rocks together would still be cutting-edge science.
Image via wikimedia user Avsar Aras

Steven Piantadosi and Celeste Kidd, brain and cognitive sciences assistant professors at the University of Rochester, think that we should thank our helpless babies for our intelligence.

“Human infants are born far more immature than the infants of other species. For example, giraffe calves are able to stand-up, walk around, and even flee from predators within hours of their births. By comparison, human infants cannot even support their own heads,” said Kidd.

“Our theory is that there is a kind of self-reinforcing cycle where big brains lead to very premature offspring and premature offspring lead to parents having to have big brains. What our formal modeling work shows is that those dynamics can result in runaway pressure for extremely intelligent parents and extremely premature offspring,” said Piantadosi.

What they’re saying is that the limiting time factor for human pregnancies is the size of the baby’s brain. Because we have big heads and because of the way human females’ lady parts are structured, mothers need to give birth while the infant’s head is small enough to ensure a safe delivery. The trade-off is that this leaves the new-born literally helpless, for a much longer period than seen in other primates.

However, there is an upside to having to care for them: parents need to be smart enough to figure out what the baby needs without being told. That requires a lot of processing power, so only the individuals with top-notch brains got to pass off their genes. A larger brain thus became a very powerful selective advantage for early humans, leading to even earlier births and so on into a self-reinforcing cycle — potentially culminating into the modern human, with markedly more complex cognitive abilities than other animals.

“What we found is that weaning time–which acts as a measure of the prematurity of the infants–was a much better predictor of primate’s intelligence than any of other measures we looked at, including brain size, which is commonly correlated with intelligence,” said Piantadosi.

The duo believes the model also helps explain some particularities of the human brain:

“Humans have a unique kind of intelligence. We are good at social reasoning and something called ‘theory of mind’–the ability to anticipate the needs of others, and to recognize that those needs may not be the same as our own,” said Kidd, who is also the director of the Rochester Baby Lab at the University of Rochester. “This is an especially helpful when taking care of an infant who is not able talk for a couple of years.”

“There are alternative theories of why humans are so intelligent. A lot of these are based on factors like living in a harsh environment or hunting in groups,” said Piantadosi. “One of the motivating puzzles of our research was thinking about those theories and trying to see why they predict specifically that primates or mammals should become so intelligent, instead of other species that faced similar pressures.”

Piantadosi and Kidd say that the key to their model is live birth. For evolution to constantly select individuals for intelligence, a species needs to give live birth to a single offspring and have large brains, both distinctive features of higher mammals.

“Our theory explains specifically why primates developed super intelligence but dinosaurs–who faced many of the same environmental pressures and had more time to do so–did not. Dinosaurs matured in eggs, so there was no linking between intelligence and infant immaturity at birth,” said Kidd.

So the next time you hear a baby crying for no reason, know that he is actually crying to make humanity smarter. It’s what they do.

The full paper, titled “Extraordinary intelligence and the care of infants” has been published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America and can be read here.

Roundworm infections found to increase fertility in women

A study of 986 Bolivian women found that on average, a lifetime infection  with a type of roundworm named Ascarius lumbricoides led to an extra two children in the family. Their paper, published in the journal Science, suggests that the worm is altering the host’s immune system, making it easier to become pregnant — in effect, the parasite increases female fertility. The researchers hope this discovery will lead to “novel fertility enhancing drugs.”

Infection with a species of parasitic worm increases the fertility of women, say scientists. Image via bbc

“The effects are unexpectedly large,” said Prof Aaron Blackwell, one of the researchers for the BBC News website.

For the Tsimane population in Bolivia, the average family has nine children, and about 70% of the population lives with a parasitic worm infection. The paper suggests that an infected woman’s immune system changes during pregnancy, making their body less likely to reject the fetus. On average, these women had two more children during their lifetime.

“We think the effects we see are probably due to these infections altering women’s immune systems, such that they become more or less friendly towards a pregnancy,” said Prof Blackwell.

Blackwell added that while using the worms as a fertility treatment was an “intriguing possibility,” there is much more work to be done before “we would recommend anyone try this.” But it’s not all roses with parasitic worms. The nine year long study also found that while Ascaris lumbricoides increases fertility in infected women, hookworms had the exact opposite effect, with families showing an average of three less children.

Prof. Rick Maizels, specialized in the workings between parasitic worms and the immune system said: “It’s horrifying that the hookworm effects are so profound, half of women by 26 or 28 have yet to fall pregnant and that’s a huge effect on life.”

Prof Maizels suggested the hookworm may also be causing anaemia and leading to infertility that way.

Bacteria and viruses try to overwhelm the immune system by multiplying rapidly. But parasites have a different strategy, growing slowly and suppressing the immune system, which is why they make vaccines less effective in the host and lighten allergies. This also makes the mother’s drowsier immune system less likely to attack fetal tissue, increasing fertility.

However, the mechanism is yet to be fully understood. Prof Allan Pacey reported that drugs had been administered to the women in an attempt to alter their immune system to boost IVF, but without success.

“It is very surprising and intriguing to find that infection with this particular species of roundworm actually enhances fertility,” said Prof Allan Pacey, a fertility scientist at the University of Sheffield.

He added: “Whilst I wouldn’t want to suggest that women try and become infected with roundworms as a way of increasing their fertility, further studies of the immunology of women who do have the parasite could ultimately lead to new and novel fertility enhancing drugs.”

Currently, one third of global population is believed to be infected with similar parasites.