How Can Poor Nutrition Affect Prenatal Development?

By Sharon Secor
Maternal nutrition fuels fetal growth and development.
Maternal nutrition fuels fetal growth and development.

In utero, a developing baby is completely dependent upon his mother for sustenance. The nutrients he receives from her fuel every aspect of his growth and development. Poor maternal nutrition can have devastating effects on those developmental processes, ranging from physical malformations to cognitive deficiencies. In some circumstances, the effects of poor maternal nutrition on prenatal development can be mitigated by targeted health care after birth. However, for many children, the developmental consequences of prenatal nutritional deficiencies can last a lifetime.

Brain Development

Poor nutrition can result in slowed or limited development of the physical structure of the brain, potentially impairing cognitive functioning. Chronic maternal malnourishment resulting in protein deficiency is associated with smaller brain size, according to “Nutrition and the Developing Brain: Nutrient Priorities and Measurement,” a 2007 article by Michael K Georgieff, of the Department of Pediatrics and Child Development at University of Minnesota School of Medicine, published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” In addition to affecting the physical structure of the brain, deficiencies in such nutrients as vitamins A and C, zinc, iron and copper, can disrupt the proper functioning of the brain, including how the brain stores and utilizes information.

Neural Tube Defects

Folic acid deficiency is clinically proven to be associated with an increased risk of neural tube defects. Defects of this nature can result in severe disability, even death. Conditions associated with neural tube defects include anencephaly, a defect resulting in the failure of the brain or part of the skull to develop, encephalocele, a defect that allows the brain to bulge out of an improperly formed or closed skull, and spinal bifida. There are a number of spinal bifida types and they typically involve varying degrees of spinal malformation, paralysis, nerve damage, and sometimes can cause cognitive disabilities. This type of defect happens within the first few weeks of pregnancy, before a woman is even aware conception has occurred. Because of this, public health officials urge women to consume 400 mcg of this nutrient daily during their fertile years.

Structure and Function of Placenta

The placenta nourishes and oxygenates the developing fetus. Poor maternal nutrition is associated with placental malformations and reduced placental functioning. If the development of the placenta and its complex vascular network is restricted, fetal development will also be restricted, its growth limited to what the sub-optimal placental functioning can support. Low birth-weight babies are a common result of a placenta that isn't developed sufficiently or functioning well enough. More serious placental defects, such as a placental abruption, can result in the death of the fetus. It is, according to About Kids Health, the leading cause of death for fetuses in the third trimester and newborns.

Premature Birth

Poor nutrition and insufficient maternal weight gain during pregnancy are associated with a higher risk of preterm delivery, according to “Preventive Nutrition: The Comprehensive Guide for Health Professionals.” Premature birth brings fetal development to a screeching halt, as the fetus becomes a newborn. Often, that newborn faces significant developmental challenges and an assortment of health issues, depending on just how early the baby arrives. Health problems include immature lungs requiring respiratory support, bleeding in the brain, cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, mental retardation and increased risk of a wide range of assorted disabilities, developmental problems and diseases.

About the Author

Sharon Secor began writing professionally in 1999, while attending Empire State University. Secor specializes primarily in personal finance and economics, and writes on a broad range of subjects. She is published in numerous online and print publications, including Freedom's Phoenix, the ObscentiyCrimes and the American Chronicle.