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It’s science: Dad’s stress levels at conception may affect baby’s brain development

It’s no secret: Trying to get pregnant can sometimes feel stressful, for both parents—and that’s probably normal. But new research shows that high levels of stress during pregnancy can have an impact on your child’s brain health, and it turns out, stress felt by fathers before pregnancy is also a factor.


A dad's stress levels can change their sperm, which can affect your baby's brain development, according to a new animal study.

Working with male mice, scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that an increase in stress hormones—known as glucocorticoids—can alter key aspects of a father’s sperm, affecting their child’s response to stress. In particular, the researchers discovered that the uptick in glucocorticoids could change the genetic material found in tiny sacs released by the duct where sperm matures. The sperm then combines with these sacs, known as vesicles, both winding up in the semen that travels the egg—and with it, changes to the genetic material.

Speaking to The Guardian, lead researcher Tracy Bale, professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said of the findings, “What it is telling us is that there is a point in the reproductive tract of the male that responds to changes in the environment—in this case it is stress, but other groups have looked at things like dietary challenge. These effects … seem to be lasting in the father.”

The yet-to-be-published research was presented at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

Bale’s latest research builds on a previous mice study that showed stress could change microRNA production in sperm. In 2015, Bale, then working at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that male mice exposed to a mildly stressful event, such as being briefly restrained, created sperm with higher levels of microRNA, which seemed to reduce their offspring’s response to stress. MicroRNA, contained in the vesicles, play a vital part in which genes become functional proteins.

But how, exactly, does the increase in microRNA affect a baby’s brain development? “The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that determines your stress response, has been wired differently,” Bale told The Guardian.

Bale and her team of researchers have noted that a dampened stress response can affect a child’s overall mental health. That’s because studies have linked an inability to handle stress well with an increased risk of certain neurodevelopmental disorders such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

A greater understanding of how a father’s stress levels can affect a child’s brain development can give doctors a better understanding of these disorders, and how to detect and prevent them, according to the scientists.

For dads-to-be, it’s important to recognize that trying to conceive can be stressful. Taking time to de-stress now is a good idea for dad and his future baby.

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Anyone who has had a baby with colic knows: It's not easy. But despite how common colic is, the causes have stumped researchers (and parents) for generations. Yet, the fact remains that some 5 to 19% of newborns suffer from colic, or excessive but largely inexplicable crying spurts.

Parents of colicky newborns are often eager for something, anything, that will give their baby comfort. The good news is that while we don't have complete confirmation on what causes colic, we do have generations worth of evidence on how to best manage and treat colic.

1. Use bottles with an anti-colic internal vent system that creates a natural flow

One of the most commonly cited culprits in causing colic is tummy discomfort from air bubbles taken in while bottle-feeding—which is proof that not all bottles are created equally. Designed with an anti-colic internal vent system that keeps air away from baby's milk during feeding, Dr. Brown's® bottles are clinically proven to reduce colic and are the #1 pediatrician recommended baby bottle in the US

Distractions and a supine position while feeding can cause your baby to take in additional air, leading to those bubbles that can bother their tummies. If you notice an uptick in crying after feeding, experiment with giving your baby milk in a more upright position and then keeping them upright for a while afterwards for burping and digestion.

2. Offer a pacifier

If your baby is calm while eating, it may be that they are actually calmed by the ability to suck on something—a common instinct among newborns. Offering a pacifier not only can help soothe colicky babies, but is also proven to reduce the rate of SIDS in newborns, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Some babies have strong opinions about their pacifiers, which is why staying with the Dr. Brown's brand can help you avoid the guessing game: Designed to mimic the shape of the bottle nipples, Dr. Brown's HappyPaci pacifier makes for easy (read: calming) transitions from bottle to pacifier.

3. Practice babywearing

Beyond tummy troubles, another leading theory is that colic is the result of newborns' immature nervous systems and the overstimulation of life outside the womb. By keeping them close to you through babywearing, you are helping ease their transition to the outside world as they come to terms with their new environment.

During pregnancy, they were also used to lots of motion throughout the day. By walking (even around the house) while babywearing, you can help give them that familiar movement they may crave.

4. Get some fresh air

Along with the motion from walking around, studies show that colicky babies may benefit simply from being outside. This is one thing for parents of spring and summer newborns. But for those who are battling colic during cold, dark months, it can help to take your stroller into the mall for some laps.

5. Swaddle to calm their nervous system

Unlike the warm, cozy confinement of the womb, the outside world babies are contending with during the fourth trimester can be overwhelming—especially after a full day of sensory stimulation. As a result, many parents report their baby's colic is worse at night, which is why a tight, comforting swaddle can help soothe them to sleep.

For many parents coping with a colicky baby, it's simply a process of experimenting about what can best provide relief. Thankfully, it doesn't have to be as much of a guessing game now, due to products like those in the Dr. Brown's line that are specifically tailored to helping babies with colic.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

These families of ours. They sure need a lot of food, don't they? After breakfast, lunch and snacks (so many snacks), dinner can pose a special kind of challenge when you're hangry, too: You have to plan, prep and cook—all while gently turning down kids begging for one more snack.

Enter, Gobble: The solution I craved, both because it's simple and legitimately craveable!

As Motherly's co-founder and a mom to three young kids, I've tried many meal service kits before and Gobble stands out above the rest as the fastest, easiest option. Not only does each meal take just 15 minutes from fridge to table, but you only have to dirty up one pan, which makes cleanup a cinch, too. Gourmet-quality meals I can whip up quickly with pre-prepped ingredients? It's like a mama's culinary dream.

Here's what else my family and I loved about Gobble:

There were so many meal options.

I'm mostly a vegetarian. My family mostly is not. So finding dinners we can all agree on has always been a challenge. But with two dozen weekly meals to select from, we had no problem—for once! And while many of the meals are annotated as kid-friendly, we're not just talking mac 'n cheese. My oldest son's favorite from the week was actually Potato Pierogies with Caramelized Onions & Sautéed Spinach. Yes, even the spinach!

It actually made me feel like a gourmet chef.

Look, I know my strengths. And preparing elaborate meals from scratch is not one of them. But by getting all the information and ingredients I needed delivered to me with Gobble, I felt my inner Julia Child come out. I mean, when's the last time I served my family homemade Chicken Piccata with Broccolini and Lemon Pepper Tagliatelle? Never. The answer is never until my Gobble box arrived.

When I say fast and easy, I mean it.

Unlike meal prep kids that have emphasis on me doing the prep, Gobble dinner kits come with pre-chopped, minced, diced and grated ingredients. There was still a bit of chopping left for me, but even without Iron Chef skills, I was able to do it all, cook it and put it on the table within 15 minutes. Which means I could spend that extra time I normally use to prepare dinner for my family with my family—pretty novel idea, right?

I felt good about serving it and better about eating it.

Sometimes I buy broccoli, kale and asparagus with the best of intentions, only to leave it hanging in the back of my fridge for a week before tossing it. But with Gobble, I truly got the experience the magic of fresh ingredients I knew how and when to use—which made me feel like one accomplished mama when I served my family Meyer Lemon Gnocchi with Asparagus Tips & Artichoke Hearts.


After previous failed attempts at serving my kids nutritious meals, I didn't have my hopes up too high—but they surprised me by (literally) eating it all up.

At the end of the week, my family requested I order another kit as soon as possible, which I was all too happy to oblige: With Gobble's easy scheduling plan, I was able to pick another week that I knew was going to be busy. (The very next week, in my case.)

Order now and get $40 off your first delivery with code MOTHERLY40.

This article was sponsored by Gobble. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

It's a conundrum many parents wrestle with: We don't want to lie to our kids, but when it comes to Santa, sometimes we're not exactly giving them the full truth either.

For Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, lying to daughters Lincoln, 5, and Delta, 3 just isn't an option, so everyone in the Bell-Shepard household knows the truth about Santa.

"This is going to be very controversial," Shepard told Us Weekly earlier this month. "I have a fundamental rule that I will never lie to them, which is challenging at times. Our 5-year-old started asking questions like, 'Well, this doesn't make sense, and that doesn't make sense.' I'm like, 'You know what? This is just a fun thing we pretend while it's Christmas.'"

According to Shepard, this has not diminished the magic of Christmas in their home. "They love watching movies about Santa, they love talking about Santa," Shepard told Us. "They don't think he exists, but they're super happy and everything's fine."

Research indicates that Shepard is right—kids can be totally happy and into Christmas even after figuring out the truth and that most kids do start to untangle the Santa myth on their own, as Lincoln did.

Studies suggest that for many kids, the myth fades around age seven, but for some kids, it's sooner, and that's okay.


Writing for The Conversation, Kristen Dunfield, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Concordia University, suggests that when kids come to parents with the hard questions about Santa, parents may feel a bit sad, but can take some comfort in "recognizing these challenging questions for what they are—cognitive development in action."

Kids aren't usually the ones who are upset when they figure it out, researchers note. Typically, kids are kind of proud of themselves for being such great detectives. It's the parents who feel sadness.

Some parents may not choose to be as blunt as Shepard, and that's okay, too. According to Dunfield, if you don't want to answer questions about Santa with 100% truth, you can answer a question with a question.

"If instead you want to let your child take the lead, you can simply direct the question back to them, allowing your child to come up with explanations for themselves: "I don't know, how do you think the sleigh flies?" Dunfield writes.

While Dax Shepard acknowledges that telling a 3-year-old that Santa is pretend might be controversial, he's hardly the first parent to present Santa this way. There are plenty of healthy, happy adults whose parents told them the truth.

LeAnne Shepard is one of them. Now a mother herself, LeAnne's parents clued her into the Santa myth early, for religious reasons that were common in her community.

"In the small Texas town where I grew up, I wasn't alone in my disbelief. Many parents, including mine, presented Santa Claus as a game that other families played," she previously wrote. "That approach allowed us to get a picture on Santa's lap, watch the Christmas classics, and enjoy all the holiday festivities so long as we remembered the actual reason for the season. It was much like when I visited Disney World and met Minnie Mouse; I was both over the moon excited and somewhat aware that she was not actually real."

No matter why you want to tell your children the truth about Santa, know that it's okay to let the kids know that he's pretend. Kristen Bell's kids prove that knowing the truth about Santa doesn't have to make Christmas any less exciting. Pretending can be magical, too.

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Breakfast is often said to be the most important meal of the day, but in many households, it's also the most hectic. Many parents rely on pre-prepared items to cut down on breakfast prep time, and if Jimmy Dean Heat 'n Serve Original Sausage Links are a breakfast hack in your home, you should check your bag.

More than 14 tons of the frozen sausage links are being recalled after consumers found bits of metal in their meat.

The United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced the recall of 23.4-oz. pouches of Jimmy Dean HEAT 'n SERVE Original SAUSAGE LINKS Made with Pork & Turkey with a 'Use By' date of January 31, 2019.

"The product bears case code A6382168, with a time stamp range of 11:58 through 01:49," the FSIS notes.

In a statement posted on its website, Jimmy Dean says "a few consumers contacted the company to say they had found small, string-like fragments of metal in the product. Though the fragments have been found in a very limited number of packages, out of an abundance of caution, CTI is recalling 29,028 pounds of product. Jimmy Dean is closely monitoring this recall and working with CTI to assure proper coordination with the USDA. No injuries have been reported with this recall."

Consumers should check their packages for "the establishment code M19085 or P19085, a 'use by' date of January 31, 2019 and a UPC number of '0-77900-36519-5'," the company says.

According to the FSIS, there have been five consumer complaints of metal pieces in the sausage links, and recalled packages should be thrown away.

If you purchased the recalled sausages and have questions you can call the Jimmy Dean customer service line at (855) 382-3101.

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Flying with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old isn't easy under optimal conditions, and when the kids are tired and cranky, things become even harder.

Many parents are anxious when flying with kids for exactly this reason: If the kids get upset, we worry our fellow passengers will become upset with us, but mom of two Becca Kinsey has a story that proves there are more compassionate people out there than we might think.

In a Facebook post that has now gone viral, Kinsey explains how she was waiting for her flight back from Disney World with her two boys, Wyatt, 2, and James, 5, when things started to go wrong, and the first of three kind women committed an act of kindness that meant so much.

After having to run all over the airport because she'd lost her ID, Kinsey and her boys were in line for security and she was "on the verge of tears because Wyatt was screaming and James was exhausted. Out of the blue, one mom stops the line for security and says 'here, jump in front of me! I know how it is!'" Kinsey wrote in her Facebook post.

Within minutes, 2-year-old Wyatt was asleep on the airport floor. Kinsey was wondering how she would carry him and all the carry-ons when "another mom jumps out of her place in line and says 'hand me everything, I've got it.'"

When Kinsey thanked the second woman and the first who had given up her place in line they told her not to worry, that they were going to make sure she got on her flight.

"The second woman takes evvvverything and helps me get it through security and, on top of all that, she grabs all of it and walks us to the gate to make sure we get on the flight," Kinsey wrote.

Kinsey and her boys boarded, but the journey was hardly over. Wyatt wolk up and started "to scream" at take off, before finally falling back asleep. Kinsey was stressed out and needed a moment to breathe, but she couldn't put Wyatt down.

"After about 45 min, this angel comes to the back and says 'you look like you need a break' and holds Wyatt for the rest of the flight AND walks him all the way to baggage claim, hands him to [Kinsey's husband], hugs me and says "Merry Christmas!!" Kinsey wrote.

👏👏👏

It's a beautiful story about women helping women, and it gets even better because when Kinsey's Facebook post started to go viral she updated it in the hopes of helping other parents take their kids to Disney and experience another form of stress-relief.

"What if everyone that shared the story went to Kidd's Kids and made a $5 donation?! Kidd's Kids take children with life-threatening and life-altering conditions on a 5 day trip to Disney World so they can have a chance to forget at least some of the day to day stressors and get to experience a little magic!!"

As of this writing, Kinsey has raised more than $2,000 for Kidd's Kids and has probably inspired a few people to be kind the next time they see a parent struggling in public.

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When I was pregnant I worried about what would happen if the baby cried for me while I was in a deep sleep. Like so many pregnancy worries, though, blocking out my baby's cries was something I didn't really need to be concerned about. An alarm clock can go off inches from my head and I'll sleep through it for hours, but if my baby cries at the other end of the house, I'm wide awake.

It turns out, the sound of my baby crying impacts my brain very differently than a beeping alarm.

I'm hardly the first parent to make this observation, and science is on to it, too. There's plenty of research about how a baby's cries impact its mother on a physical level. A study of mother mice published in Nature found that adding oxytocin (a hormone released in strong doses during labor and lactation) to the brains of the mamas changed the way they processed the sound of crying pups—and helped them learn how to recognize and respond to the sounds.

A dose of this “motherhood hormone," it seems, leads to increased sensitivity to the sound of your child in distress.

According to Robert Froemke, that study's senior investigator, this suggests oxytocin amplifies the way the auditory cortex processes incoming cries from our own babies. He says the same seems to be true for female mice as female humans: The sound of a crying baby stirs up a great sense of urgency.

This physiological reaction allow us to develop rapid, reliable behaviors to our babies' cries, says Froemke. In time, it also helps us learn what the cries mean—and how we can respond in a helpful way.

When our babies cry, “[as parents, we] don't know what's really going to work, we just try a bunch of stuff. Let's change a diaper, let's feed the baby, let's do a little dance," he says. “Eventually we learn this repertoire of parenting skills because we're all in, we're all invested and that baby depends on us absolutely to take care of it."

Researchers believe that it may be this hormonal shift in the brain that alerts a mother to the sound of her child's cry.

Mothers' brains have a different level of sensitivity to crying babies

In humans and in mice, dads often respond to a baby's cries, but the brain chemistry is a little different: According to Froemke, extra oxytocin doesn't speed up the reaction to crying pups in male mice the way it does for females.

"There is a difference in terms of [ a father's] sensitivity to oxytocin. We think that may be because the male oxytocin system is already maxed out," he explains, adding there is something about living with a female and child that contributes to a natural oxytocin increase in mouse dads. (Further proof moms aren't the only ones to deal with big hormone changes.)

But when it comes to the brains of human parents, there is more evidence that the brains of men and women respond to crying babies differently. A study published in NeuroReport looked at the brains of 18 men and women who heard a baby crying while inside a brain scanner. The women's brain activity suggested an immediate alertness, while the men's brain activity didn't change.

That study suggests there are gender differences in the way we process baby sounds, but a lot of dads will tell you they can't and don't sleep through a baby cries. And that's for good reason: According to Froemke, it's no biological accident that babies signal distress in a way that can pierce parents brains even when our eyes are closed.

"Parents have to sleep, too," he says, but, "Sounds penetrate our brains, they tap into something deep and we can quickly rouse from a deep slumber, jump out of bed and tend to infant needs."

Just as my son is biologically wired to be my personal alarm clock, I am biologically wired to hear him—even if I can still sleep through everything else.

[Originally published October 18. 2017]

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