Genes vs. Lifestyle: Which Affects A Baby’s Development The Most?

“Nature versus nurture” has been a childrearing debate for decades. Now, modern research provides some insight into the question. Researchers from the University of Southampton working with researchers at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences have investigated this question and published their findings in Genome Research.

The question the researcher studied was how much of a baby’s development comes from their genes and how much comes from the health, lifestyle and nutrition of the mother while the baby is in the womb. By studying the epigenetics of the babies, which is the study of inheritable changes in gene activity that are not due to changes in the child’s underlying DNA sequence, the researchers aimed to find what difference a mother’s health and the prenatal environment made on the baby’s DNA.

The researchers took DNA samples from umbilical cord tissue from 237 participants. They used several pieces of technology to determine the babies’ genetic profiles by measuring epigenetic marks on the DNA. Then, they looked at 39 different models of genetic polymorphism that showed how genetic differences and the environment in the womb interacted to affect the child’s development. This marks the first study that looked at DNA to determine what impact the environment (nurture) and genetic factors (nature) had on the baby’s development before birth.

Both Components Are Important, but Environment Has a Larger Role

What the researchers found is that genetics accounted for 25 percent of the epigenetic differences between the babies. The environment in the womb, however, and its interaction with these genetic differences accounted for a full 75 percent of the differences.

This means that it is less the baby’s own DNA and more the mother’s behavior and health that impacts the child’s future health. Certain DNA marks that are affected by the prenatal environment stand as markers for serious future health problems, including heart disease and obesity.

The Mother’s Health Is Crucial

What does this mean for today’s mothers? It means that a healthy expectant mom has a direct impact on the baby’s health and even the baby’s ultimate genetic makeup. Some of the problems mothers struggled with, such as smoking, depression and body weight, were seen to have a direct impact on the health of their babies, regardless of the genetic predisposition of those babies. Changes seen in the babies included birth weight and gestational age at birth.

In light of these findings, today’s moms should understand that their level of health has the ability to change their unborn children on a genetic level. The choices a mom makes today can have a life-long impact on her baby’s health and well being.


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