The 1,000 days that will shape your baby forever. . .
As a well-intentioned parent, I have nagged at my kids to eat their greens, battled to get them into the best school and have spent endless hours reading to them in the hope that they might get a good start to life.
But shocking new medical research shows that the chances of your child making a success of his or her life may have begun long before their first bottle or tug at the breast.
Researchers in the UK now believe that the first 1,000 days of life -- from the moment of conception to a child's second birthday -- are the most important indicators of determining how healthy and happy your kids are later on in life.
" ... By the end of the first 1,000 days the body is almost complete," said Professor David Barker, professor of clinical epidemiology at Southampton University, who has spent years working on this groundbreaking theory. "So what you have on your 1,000th day is what you will ever have."
Even chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, schizophrenia and obesity can be caused by what happened to an adult in utero, researchers say.
"Chronic disease is going up in leaps and bounds, this is not a genetic chance." said Kent Thornburg, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine in Oregon.
"It's because the environment in the womb is getting worse. We know now that the first 1,000 days of life is the most sensitive period for determining lifelong health."
Barker believes that there are a series of critical phases involved in turning a male sperm and female egg into a fully developed baby, and if conditions are not perfect at every phase -- say if the father smokes or drinks excessively, or if the mother is stressed or obese -- then the 'build quality' of that child is compromised.
Such parents may give birth to a child who is perfectly healthy but who nonetheless may grow into an adult who is predisposed to chronic illness in later life.
"All diseases may be expressions of key developments in the womb," said Barker. "That does not mean you are doomed, it means you are vulnerable. Understanding that challenges the way medicine is structured."
For mothers who are undernourished or who are eating too little of the right things such as vitamin D, or too much of the wrong things such as sugary cakes, then the structure of the organs of the developing baby may be affected, Barker says.
"Growth has a pattern," said Alan Jackson, Professor of Nutrition at Southampton University. "Everything has a time and place and if that gets interrupted then you can catch up, but there are consequences."
When food is scarce in the womb, experts believe, nutrients are immediately diverted to the developing brain, leaving the heart to fend for itself.
An undernourished child may be born with a smaller,
stiffer heart that will never be as resilient as the heart of a baby born with the correct nutritional balance.
On average, a baby weighing less than 5lb 7oz is twice as likely to die from a heart attack as an adult than one born at 9lb 7oz.
And according to Prof Barker, once a baby has been adversely affected by unsuitable conditions in the womb, the effects are "set in stone" and cannot be corrected once the baby has left the 'factory'.
Therefore efforts to 'fatten up' underweight babies by giving them too much formula milk too quickly may make the problem worse, experts say.
Prof Barker and his team also point to the influence of the environment during pregnancy, not just on current generations but on future ones too.
More research needs to be focused on the "egg that made you," said Dr Mark Porter, who points out that unlike boys, who generate sperm after puberty, newborn girls are born with their lifetime supply of eggs.
Dr Porter believes that environmental influences on your mother when she was in her mother's womb may influence current and future generations.
So that extra glass of wine, sugary treat or quick puff can compromise the integrity of these eggs and consequently the future health of the child and future generations.
A pregnant woman's body, says Prof Barker, is the product of her entire life.
And it's not just mothers who have to take care. There is growing evidence that diet and lifestyle choices affect paternal lines too, with the genetic information in the father's sperm thought to be susceptible to outside influences.
Such theories may explain why some fathers who smoke are more likely to have children who develop childhood cancers, even if they quit the habit before their child is born.
"You are what your dad ate," said Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith of Cambridge University.
For would-be parents, the news that the future health of their child may have already been determined by the actions of their grandparents will add more stress to what is already a nerve-wracking time.
But experts such as Prof Barker warn that all is not lost and that eating well, and enjoying a healthy lifestyle -- preferably long before you decide to conceive -- will still ensure that your child, and possibly their future children, will enjoy long and healthy lives to come.