In a context like South Africa, it is essential that Psychologists contemplate the influences that environmental factors pose on prenatal development. The consequences of these environmental factors continue to manifest in childhood and the adversities impact the future of the infant later in the adult phase. Therefore, the following essay will focus on prenatal development including some of the environmental factors that affect prenatal development, how the interaction between genetics and environmental factors impact prenatal development and how the social, economic, political and historical situations of South Africa give rise to one of the environmental factors.
Prenatal development is the changes that occur during the prenatal period. All the changes that occur to the zygote after fertilization. The prenatal period is the time between conception to birth and it is usually 9 months (Weiten, 2001). It is a period where rapid and paramount development takes place (Weiten, 2001). Prenatal development comprises of three stages: germinal, embryonic and the foetal stage. During the germinal stage (first two weeks from conception) rapid cell division takes place and the mass of cells gets implanted in the uterine wall and it is during this stage that the placenta is formed (Weiten, 2001).
The embryonic stage is from two weeks to two months and it is the one that poses the greatest vulnerability of all the three, because all the crucial organs, systems and physiological structures are developed during this stage (Weiten,2001). Then the foetal stage, which is from two months until birth and where physical movement and sex organs are developed (Weiten,2001).
Genes carry your genetic blueprints which are gradually revealed throughout your life and they are passed down from your parents (Weiten, 2001). Environmental factors are those that the person is exposed to externally, but with genetics, it is internally. Many Psychologists consider rapid development (prenatal development) to be mostly associated with external factors ( Dalby, 1978) and rather not genetics. The genes are the ones that cause a certain structure for the foetus, but the environmental factors can alter those genetic characteristics if exposed to them, because with maternal drug use, it can influence the embryonic stage and therefore alter the physiological features to be developed (Weiten, 2001). Therefore, genetics cannot alter environmental factors, but the opposite can result. Therefore, environmental factors have a greater negative influence on prenatal development. According to Dalby (1978), he states that if the ways in which the environmental factors affect prenatal development can be determined, then it means that pregnant women can plan environmental variations to improve the development of the foetus and prevent the negative consequences given by the environment. But with genetics that is not the case unless genetic manipulation is used, but it also imposes complications which would not take place with manipulating the environment. But genetics are also important because they account for a portion of the association displayed on the infant, and the parental genetics can impose a risk of psychopathology which can reflect on the unborn child and course complications during the prenatal period (Ramchandani, Richter, Norris & Stein,2010 ).
The gene and environment interplay have been found as the host of conduct disorder, depression and substance abuse( Leve, Neiderhiser, Scaramella & Reiss, 2008). For example, ADHD is associated with genes and therefore when diagnosing both the environment and genetics must be considered ( Coll, Bearer & Lerner, 2014). Genetics also cause antisocial behaviour in pregnant women and triggers smoking and drinking which shows that some of the environmental factors are driven by genetics ( Coll et al., 2014). This interaction provides crucial information about the malleable environmental processes that can reduce the adversities faced by the developing foetus (Leve et al., 2008). Communities that discourage testing for HIV/AIDS delay the pregnant women from getting tested and to prevent passing it on to the foetus (Haddad, D., Makin, J.D., Pattinson, R.C., & Forsyth B.W.(2015).
Although the foetus is protected inside the womb, but they are linked to the mother through the placenta and therefore the environmental factors can, therefore, impact the foetus indirectly (Weiten, 2001). External factors like prenatal health care, maternal nutrition, maternal drug use and maternal wellness ( Weiten,2001).
Maternal drug use includes prescription drugs, recreational drugs, tobacco as well as alcohol (Weiten,2001) aspirin, antacids, thiazide, antibiotics (Dalby, 1978) and all can cause neurocognitive deficits (Petersen, Bhana, Swartz,2012). They pose risks because most of the drugs can pass the membrane of the placenta and get into the foetus and drugs like sedatives, cocaine, narcotics are dangerous (Weiten,2001). Being exposed to heroin during the prenatal period causes a high risk of prematurity, birth defects, respiratory problems and face consequences involved with being addicted to it (Finnegan & Kandall, 1997 as cited in Weiten, 2001).
Excessive maternal drinking during pregnancy holds risks for the baby including Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). This can cause the baby having heart defects, microcephaly (small head), hyperactivity, irritability and restarted mental and motor development (Finnegan & Kandall, 1997 as cited by Weiten, 2001). It can also cause craniofacial and limb abnormalities (Dalby,1078). Withdrawing during the pregnancy also places danger on the unborn child, as the mother might be dependent on smoking or drinking and it will change her functioning which will cause complications and affect the unborn child ( Dalby, 1978).
Cocaine is associated with birth defects, heart abnormalities and brain seizures ( Brockington, 1996 as cited in Weiten, 2001). Tobacco is associated with birth complications such as prematurity, stillbirth, miscarriages (Chavkin,1995 as cited in Weiten, 2001). It can also lead to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Haglund & Cnattingius, 1990 as cited in Weiten, 2001). It also causes slow cognitive development (Sexton, Fox, & Hebel, 1990 as cited in Weiten, 2001) and Attention Deficit Disorder (Millberger et al., 1996 as cited in Weiten, 2001). Tobacco can also cause a reduction in the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the foetus (Weiten,2001), reduced blood flow to the foetus, hyperactivity and is also associated with fetal growth retardation (Dalby, 1978).
Maternal wellness includes both the biological aspect and the mental or emotional aspect of the pregnant mother. The placenta looks for infectious agents and prevents them from reaching the foetus, but it cannot do that for all of them. Therefore, the foetus can end up catching the illness or disease from the mother through the placenta (Weiten,2001). These diseases are harmful such as cholera, smallpox, rubella, mumps, severe flu and syphilis (Weiten,2001). AIDS and Genital Herpes (which causes microcephaly, brain damage, blindness, paralysis and deafness ) can also be transmitted through the placenta to the foetus during the birth process (Weiten,2001). AIDS can also be because of breastfeeding (Eldred & Chaisson, 1996 as cited in Weiten, 2001). The stigma coming with HIV/AIDS caused pregnant women from presenting to the clinic, therefore increasing their chances of transmitting it to the developing foetus ( Haddad et al., 2015).
Maternal prenatal depression is associated with the unborn child displaying less movement, the heart rate increases above normal, prematurity, lower birth weight and slower foetal growth (Field, 2011). Maternal prenatal depression increases the risk of emotional, behavioural and cognitive difficulties for the offspring ( Ramchandani et al., 2010). It also affects the unborn child`s temperament and cognitive functioning(Ramchandani et al., 2010). It also impacts the child`s sleep which will manifest once they are born ( Field, 2011). Maternal prenatal depression affects psychomotor, socio-emotional and behavioural development ( Kingston, D., Tough, S & Whitfield, H., 2012).
Some women that are pregnant get depression and this can affect their mental health. This is influenced by the interplay between biological, genetical, interpersonal, environmental, social, economic and cultural factors (Petersen et al., 2012). Social contributors to poor mental health are poverty, social disorders and conflicts (Petersen et al., 2012) which the government of South Africa is still far from resolving. There are gaps in the proximal psychosocial programmes (that are developed by the government) to reduce maternal depression and South Africa has high rates of maternal depression (Petersen et al., 2012). Considering the history of South Africa, apartheid has caused many fractured black families and this caused poverty, stress and even depression which results in poor mental health ( Petersen et al., 2012).
Also, HIV/AIDS in South Africa is a huge problem because about 1900000 child orphans were due to HIV/AIDS and it is one of the reasons to maternal prenatal depression or poor mental health ( Petersen et al., (2012). Even when the Government comes up with programmes to counteract maternal depression, maternal mental health, their implementation and quality of these programmes is questionable ( Petersen et al., 2012). In general, there should be interventions that will be beneficial to poverty, social redress policies, alleviation and promote mental health and healthy lifestyles and some should be strictly directed towards pregnant women, which the government lacks ( Petersen et al., 2012). Economic evaluation studies show that the cost for interventions for societies is high (Petersen et al., 2012) and therefore the country does not have enough resources for that (Petersen et al., 2012). Because of poor communities with lack of transport and health care being costly, pregnant women cannot get treatment for HIV/AIDS which increases the risk of passing it on to the foetus and having adverse effects ( Haddad et al., 2015).
It is evident that prenatal development is very crucial and of paramount importance. It is also the time of vulnerability for the developing foetus. Therefore, the foetus can easily be affected even if it is not directly but indirectly. Therefore, the environmental factors can have adverse consequences on the foetus such as maternal drug use and maternal wellness which not only affects the child at the prenatal period, but these adversities continue to impact them at childhood and later in their life due to the functioning that was affected during the prenatal development. Therefore, it is of importance that the government enforces their existing interventions and create new ones, but also take them serious in order to save children lives and their mothers live also. Therefore, creating a better context for South Africa.
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