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Whenever a baby is born in some sort of trouble, say, premature or with delivery complications or respiratory difficulties, we think about sex. We think about stereotypes, clichés and profiles. If it’s a girl, we figure she’ll do pretty well in spite of the challenges she faces. If the baby is a boy though, we knew he might not handle stress quite as well and may not fare as well in the NICU.
Most nurses in the labor and delivery department are women so of course, we figure girls handle the stress and struggle of a tough start in life better than boys because, well, they’re girls and frankly, girls are tough. Boys, on the other hand, aren’t. They just think they are. You know how men are when they’re sick. They’re babies. Even when they’re babies, they’re bigger babies than girls.
Don’t get me wrong; I love those fragile little guys and I’ve always had a soft spot for sensitive boys? When we’re looking at a baby who has some healing to do however, it’s good to be a girl.
Yesterday, I came across a study that backs our sexist attitudes up. The University of Adelaide in Australia published a study on how the sex of a baby determines how it will handle stress in pregnancy and pregnancy complications. Their researchers said that during pregnancy, male and female babies show different growth and development patterns following stressors such as disease, cigarette use or psychological stress.
Lead researcher, Associate Professor Vicki Clifton says that when confronted with stress, a boy baby initially, “pretends it's not happening and keeps growing, so he can be as big as he possibly can be. The female . . . will reduce her growth rate a little bit; not too much so she becomes growth restricted, but just dropping a bit below average. When there is another complication in the pregnancy - either a different stress or the same one again - the female will continue to grow on that same pathway and do okay but the male baby doesn't do so well and is at greater risk of pre-term delivery, stopping growing or dying in the uterus."
Clifton says the difference in growth patterns has to do with how Cortisol, the stress hormone, affects the placenta. With girl babies, increased Cortisol in Mom changes the way the placenta functions and that leads to reduced growth. Increased Cortisol doesn’t produce the same placental changes with boy babies. Why not? We don’t know yet. This research is “to be continued.”
What does that mean to mothers carrying boy babies? It means we have evidence to support what we already know – boy babies often need a little extra support when they’re sick. NICU nurses have amazing capacity to slather on heaps of ever lovin’ care to all babies when they’re doing their difficult, miracle-making jobs. They didn’t really need this study to tell them that boys handle stress differently than girls. That’s been on their radar forever. Believe me, baby girls benefit from all the NICU’s fabulous care too. They get the same level of support and are watched just as carefully as the boys. We just worry a little less about them because, well, they’re girls and girls are tough. Boys are softies.
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