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How to Have a Smarter Child

Heredity, of course, has a lot to do with how smart your child will turn out. But the environment in which he or she develops is an important factor.

Potential Dangers

Less obvious enemies can be equally deadly to the developing brain. One of these is lead from old paint and plumbing. Families living in older homes should have their air and water tested, Darvill says.

Seafood from contaminated waters may harbor brain toxins such as PCBs, methyl mercury, lead, cadmium, and pesticides. Warnings by authorities against eating local fish should be taken seriously by pregnant women, says Philippe Grandjean, MD, professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health. The FDA says moms-to-be should avoid swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and other large ocean fish that tend to concentrate toxic chemicals.

Especially during the first trimester, infections like German measles or toxoplasmosis, which is caused by a parasite that can be contracted through contact with infected cat feces, can wreak havoc on the embryonic brain. So pregnant women should stay away from sick children and avoid changing the litter box whenever possible.

Thyroid disease is another culprit that can sneak up unnoticed, says endocrinologist John Lazarus, MD. Babies born to women with low thyroid function are more likely to have low IQ. To determine whether thyroid replacement in similar women might help, his group at the University of Wales College of Medicine in Cardiff has started a seven-year clinical study.

Sound Effects

Can you jump-start Junior's brain by playing Mozart through earphones wired to your belly?

No, says Kenneth M. Steele, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

"There is no solid scientific evidence that human fetuses either need or benefit from additional stimulation of the 'Mozart-effect' variety," Steele tells WebMD. Sounds entering the fluid-filled womb are muffled and distorted. It's much like hearing the noise of a pool party when your head is under water.

Cranking up the stereo volume could eventually damage the mother's hearing, and transmitting sound directly to the unborn child through earphones could permanently damage the baby's sensitive ears. Steele recommends that pregnant women also avoid prolonged exposure to high intensity sounds, especially those of lower pitch than the human voice: "If it's too loud for the mother then it's probably too loud for the baby."

Eat Smarter

When you're eating for two, remember that both of you need a whole host of nutrients to support the dramatic changes taking place. As your child travels that amazing journey from single cell to fully developed baby, her brain cells are especially finicky about what they need to achieve their greatest potential.

"Prenatal nutrition for the mother is essential," Schoenthaler tells WebMD. "A supplement is an insurance policy rather than a replacement for good eating."

In addition to a prenatal vitamin/mineral supplement, he recommends five or six daily servings of fruits and vegetables and five of whole grains. As fat and protein are crucial for fetal brain development, total calories should include at least 12% in lean proteins and not more than 30% in fat or 10% in sugar.

"Mom needs a healthy diet, and she does need to start eating for two," Darvill says. "There will be plenty of time to drop the extra pounds involved in pregnancy later."

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