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Health & Pregnancy

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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.

First, Do No Harm continued...

"Most devastating developmental conditions result from prenatal damage," Darvill says. "If Mom drinks alcohol or uses other recreational drugs, she should stop."

Brain cells depend on chemical signals to tell them where to go, how to connect, and which genes to turn on or off. "Any foreign substance that interferes with the clear transmission of these chemical messages can impact negatively on development," says Darvill.

"Any kind of drug use -- running the gamut from caffeine to heroin -- has the potential to limit the later intellectual development of the unborn child," Shawn K. Acheson, PhD, tells WebMD.

While the evidence is most clear-cut for alcohol, pregnant women should avoid all drugs, says Acheson, an assistant professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.

"It's commonsense stuff, but I still see incredibly intelligent pregnant women who should know better continuing to smoke," she says.

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.

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