Fetal Growth

In the first 2 months after conception - the period of embryogenesis - the fetus develops very rapidly. By 9 to 10 weeks after conception, although the fetus weighs only about 6 g, all of the major organ systems are present, the heart begins to beat, and the fetus begins to move. Optimum, balanced nutrition is very important during this period - the embryo is extremely vulnerable to changes in nutrient supply and adverse effects from environmental toxins. Absence of micronutrients (e.g., fo-late and zinc) during this critical period may impair development and produce a birth defect or cause miscarriage.1 During this stage the pregnant woman should be very careful to avoid environmental hazards (e.g., alcohol and cigarette smoke) and to eat a micronu-trient-dense, high-quality diet.2

During the remainder of pregnancy the fetalorgan systems mature and acquire their basic adult characteristics. The weight of the developing fetus increases from 6gto over 3000 g during the second and third trimesters - a remarkable 500-fold increase. Fetal growth draws heavily on the nutrient resources of the mother in the second half of pregnancy. During this time, both quantity and quality of the diet are important.

A major goal of pregnancy is to obtain an infant birth weight greater than 2500 g. Babies weighing less than 2500g at birth are termed low birth weight (LBW) infants. Compared with normal weight infants, LBW infants have much higher rates of illness2 and are 40 times more likely to die in the first few weeks of life.

Many LBW infants do not "catch up" after birth; even with adequate nutrition after birth, most will be shorter than average for the rest of their lives, and many show long-term impairments in intellect and mental development. In addition, LBW infants tend to have more chronic health problems in later life. Thus, poor nutrition in utero may have profound effects that cannot be reversed after birth. A multivitamin/mineral supplement taken during pregnancy may decrease risk of delivering a LBW infant.3

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