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Knowing the sex of the baby before giving birth may improve health outcomes, study finds

Experts say male and female babies affect placenta function differently

Pregnancy and gender concept
Photo (c) Neuropeptide Y - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from St. John’s College and the University of Cambridge explored the health benefits of parents finding out the sex of their baby

According to the findings, knowing the sex of a baby before giving birth may reveal important health information, as carrying male babies has been linked with complications. Having a treatment plan before delivery can ensure that women are making lifestyle choices that are best suited to their health. 

“Often parents don’t want to know the baby’s sex because they want it to be a surprise,” said researcher Dr. Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri. “But actually knowing the sex would help to identify whether a pregnancy may be at greater risk of than another because we know that some conditions of pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia and fetal growth restriction can be more prevalent in women that carry male babies than females.

“We don’t quite know 100 percent why that is but it might be related to the fact that male babies grow faster in the womb. So it might be that their demands for nutrients and oxygen supplied from the mother through the placenta can easily become limited, so the male baby may not be receiving all that it really wants and needs to grow to its full capacity. It may be that its resilience against stresses or poor conditions in pregnancy may be lower than say, for females, who have got less requirements.”  

How babies’ gender affects pregnancy health

The researchers conducted their study on pregnant mice to better understand how knowing the sex of infants can inform health care during pregnancy. The team was primarily focused on mitochondria, which is where the placenta gets its energy from. They looked at how changes to mitochondria affected the mice’s health during pregnancy. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that the mice exhibited differences in their placenta function when they were carrying male babies versus female babies. The placenta had better function when the mice were carrying lighter female babies, as opposed to heavier male babies. 

“The placenta has an amazing skill in changing how it forms and how it functions,” said Dr. Sferruzzi-Perri. “This can be seen at multiple levels from the way in which the cells form in the placenta, its genes and proteins, even its mitochondria. These can all change in response to different types of cues, whether it’s in a mother that has been eating sugary, fatty diet, or in a pregnancy where there is rivalry between the siblings when there’s more than one baby, but what I think is probably the most novel aspect is that the way the placenta does adapt seems to depend on whether the baby’s female or male.” 

Staying healthy during pregnancy

Based on these findings, the researchers hope more pregnant women find out the sex of their babies before delivery in order to create treatment plans that are specifically designed for them and their health. The goal is to have more therapies in place that would directly target the placenta and improve the health of women and their babies. 

“These therapies would increase the way in which the placenta functions, how it develops, even how at the level of its mitochondria it produces energy to support fetal growth,” Dr. Sferruzzi-Perri said. “A lot of this groundwork is reinforcing to us that the placenta is fundamental for healthy pregnancy outcomes, and that fetal sex is important. But by looking at the different sorts of genes, proteins, and cellular mechanisms, we might identify targets that could be like biomarkers and specifically targeted in the placenta to improve outcomes for mothers and their babies.” 

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