The sacrifices demanded by pregnancy and breastfeeding make mini-martyrs of almost every mother. On the advice of experts, many of us shun alcohol, caffeine, excessive exercise, unpasteurised dairy, flying, deli counters, headache tablets and hot baths. Regular life as we know it ceases to exist because, frankly, we understand the health of our unborn and breastfeeding child depends on it.
As if the list of things we have to give up wasn’t long enough, the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) has released a paper that makes one wonder if women shouldn’t be kept in a hermetically sealed bubble for the duration of their pregnancy.
The report covers the possible risks regarding chemical exposure. In this case, chemicals include those found in household detergents, toiletries (such as shower gel), food and associated packaging, paint and new furniture. The paper is supposed to arm women “with sufficient facts to enable them to make an informed decision as to whether or not they might wish to take some form of positive action”.
While it would be reasonable to assume that the scientists had discovered some awful truth about the nasties lurking in the bathroom cabinet, no risk was actually substantiated. The paper merely points to concerns that accumulated exposure to everyday toxins may be dangerous, but that "it is unlikely that any of these exposures are truly harmful for most babies.” So despite this all being a glorified hunch, the report recommends pregnant and breastfeeding women take “a ‘safety first’ approach, which is to assume there is risk present even when it may be minimal or eventually unfounded”.
To paraphrase, the paper seems to say ‘we really don't know this stuff will cause harm, but just in case you may want to dial down the personal hygiene. Perhaps think about washing your clothes in the local stream with nothing more than elbow grease and hard yakka to remove those stubborn stains ... you know, just in case.’
It’s fair to acknowledge that most of us are exposed to a multitude of chemicals every day, and being aware of volume and frequency of use is probably sensible. However, with no evidence that exposure to these very low toxin levels can cause harm to an unborn or breastfeeding child, it’s hard to see how the RCOG report allows women to make “an informed decision”. It’s far easier to see how the advice could increase anxiety levels for a woman already compromising her day-to-day routines to provide the best environment for her child.
As a mum to an eight-month-old breastfed baby, Nicky Glover is mindful of making the right choices for herself and her child. As someone who is now wary of chemical exposure, she describes her day as seeming like “16 hours of waging little guilt-ridden debates with myself”.
“Does the shower gel I’m using containing aluminum? Can I use the perfumed moisturiser? Is it ok to bleach the bath? Is the disinfectant auto-spray at the swim pool safe for my baby to inhale?” she says.
While Glover is certain that reducing chemical exposure is generally sensible, she is aware that during pregnancy and breastfeeding the heightened awareness can cause additional stress (something that really has been proven to pose a genuine risk during pregnancy).
It’s not just the scrutiny of their own guilt that mothers have to contend with. These reports are made available to everyone (not just mothers), and doesn’t it seem that everyone likes to make it clear to women that they can’t be trusted to take care of their own bodies? Pregnant women are refused alcohol, transportation and even cheese. They’re publicly shamed for smoking and humiliated for eating too much. How long will it be before a pregnant woman is heckled for buying deodorant at the supermarket?
While no one would expect genuine, evidence-based advice to be kept from women, suggesting they should abstain from normal activities based on hypotheticals isn’t particularly constructive. On a standalone basis, the RCOG’s advice may seem rather benign; when added to the multitude of expectations around pregnant women’s behavior, it only adds to unreasonable pressure.
Aside from concerns around provoking undue stress, the long-term implications of the advice overload are concerning. How easy is it to maintain self-confidence as a mother when others attempt to micro-manage our daily lives? If our experiences of pregnancy and infancy are dominated by negativity and a push towards total risk eradication, how does this influence our approach to risk as our children grow? How easy is it to shirk the shackles of fear? How do we teach our children that, despite its inherent risks, the world is something to be delighted by, not terrified of?
Professional advice givers are all too willing to burden women with more and more demands under the guise of it being in the best interest of mother and child, regardless of whether it is practical or even possible. In the case of the RCOG paper, the recommendations have little merit and ignore the potential implications in terms of stress and anxiety.
Really, for the average pregnant or breastfeeding mother, the accumulation of chemicals is probably far less a concern than the accumulation of advice and opinion she is forced to contend with throughout her pregnancy and beyond.