Problems With Prenatal Development

Problems with prenatal development
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

In most cases, prenatal development occurs normally and follows the established patterns of development with little variation. However, there are a number of things that can go wrong during this time, which are usually caused by genetics or environmental problems.

Genetic Problems 

As you might imagine, genetics play a major role in development. However, in some cases, genetic problems can emerge that may impact both current and future development.

  • Down Syndrome: Also known as trisomy 21, Down syndrome is the most common genetic anomaly during prenatal development. Down syndrome is caused by an extra copy of the 21 chromosomes (meaning there are three chromosomes instead of the usual two) and impacts approximately 1 out of every 1,000 infants. Typical features of Down syndrome include flattened facial features, heart defects, and intellectual impairment. The risk of having a child with Down syndrome increases with maternal age.
  • Inherited diseases: A number of illnesses can be inherited if one or both parents carry a gene for the disease. Examples of inherited diseases include Sickle-cell anemia, Cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs disease. Genetic tests can often determine if a parent is a carrier of genes for a specific disease.
  • Sex-Chromosome Problems: The third type of genetic problems involves sex-chromosomes. These include conditions such as Klinefelter's syndrome (an extra X-chromosome) and Turner syndrome (a single X-chromosome).

Environmental Problems 

Environmental variables can also play a major role in prenatal development. Harmful environmental elements that can effects the fetus are known as teratogens. There a number of teratogens that can harm the fetus, including:

  • Maternal Drug Use: The use of substances by the mother can have devastating consequences to the fetus. Smoking is linked to low birth weight, which can result in a weakened immune system, poor respiration, and neurological impairment. Alcohol use can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which is linked to heart defects, body malformations, and mental retardation. The use of illicit psychoactive drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine is also linked to low birth weight and neurological impairment.
  • Maternal Disease: There are a number of maternal diseases that can negatively impact the fetus, including herpes, rubella, and AIDS. Herpes virus is one of the most common maternal diseases and can be transmitted to the fetus, leading to deafness, brain swelling, or mental retardation. Women with herpes virus are often encouraged to deliver via cesarean to avoid transmission of the virus.

The prenatal period is a time of tremendous growth and also great vulnerability. As you have seen, there are a number of dangers that can pose a potential risk to the growing fetus. Some of these dangers, such as environmental risks from teratogens and drug use, can be prevented or minimized. In other instances, genetic problems may simply be unavoidable. In either case, early prenatal care can help new mothers and children cope with potential problems with prenatal development.

Was this page helpful?