Published on April 19th, 2021
When you’re pregnant (and feeling a little snacky), you might find yourself saying these things to your partner:
“The baby’s in the mood for a cheeseburger with extra pickles. Extra, extra pickles.”
“Why are we out of milk? Because the baby wanted all the Reese’s Chocolate Puffs last night.”
“Hun, the baby wants chocolate cake. If you want to share… buy two.”
As you’re munching on your favorite snacks, you might be wondering, does everything you eat go to your baby? The foods you eat do nourish your child. But the process is a bit more complicated than splitting your pad Thai lunch with your little one.
Bon Appetit! How Your Baby Eats in the Womb
First, it can help to understand how your digestive system works. Your digestive system turns food into nutrients and energy. From there, the body uses energy to power every physiological system, from making new memories to physical movements (like reaching for that extra slice of pizza).
The body uses nutrients—vitamins and minerals—for just about everything. That includes everything from the cell structures that you make up your skin, muscles, bones, blood, hair, brain matter, and toenails to supporting important systems like your immune defense and sleep cycles.
So yeah, you literally are what you eat. And so is your baby! This is why healthy eating is important for your pregnancy diet!
The digestive system turns your breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and midnight munchies into the good stuff by:
- Breaking down food – Your mouth is the first stop on the digestive train! The mouth chews food, breaking down substances, so the rest of the digestive system has an easier time. Then the food is swallowed and travels through the esophagus, the tube connected to your mouth, to the stomach. In the stomach, acids and chemicals called enzymes help the food dissolve and break down further. When food has been turned into a goopy mush by the stomach, it heads to the small intestine.
- Extracting the nutrients – The small intestine is a 22-foot-long organ (that’s 13 newborns long, for comparison purposes) responsible for taking the good stuff out of your food mush and giving it to your body to put to use. Much like the stomach, the small intestine is full of digestive juices like enzymes and acid, that further break down food. Later down the line, the jejunum and ileum—parts of the small intestine—absorb the nutrients and introduce it to your bloodstream. The bloodstream is the body’s delivery highway, bringing nutrients where your body needs them (take that, Amazon Prime!).
The pancreas, liver, and gallbladder help as well. The pancreas is a digestive organ responsible for producing insulin, one of the most important hormones your body uses to turn sugar into energy. The liver takes nutrients and turns them into chemicals your body needs. The gallbladder helps your body absorb and digest fats.
- Getting rid of the waste – Now that your body has extracted all the vitamins and minerals from the meal…what’s left behind? Well frankly, it’s the stuff that eventually comes out of your behind! By the time the food has made it all the way through your small intestine, it’s semi-solid. The colon (also called the large intestine, even though it’s only six feet long), takes what’s left of your food and condenses it into what will eventually wind up in your toilet. The colon is also responsible for absorbing water from the leftover post-food mush.
Your Digestive Process and Your Baby
During pregnancy, your baby needs nutrients the same way your body does. But how your baby absorbs those nutrients is slightly different. After all, your baby is still growing his own digestive system! So how does he get his snacks?
- The placenta – The placenta is a pancake-shaped organ that is connected to the baby through the umbilical cord. The placenta is attached to the lining of your uterus and starts forming as early as six days after fertilization when your baby is just a little cluster of growing cells. What does the placenta do? It’s room service, an oxygen bar, and a protective detail all in one!
- Delivers oxygen and nutrients (aka the good stuff from your meals) from your bloodstream to your baby through the umbilical cord.
- Makes the hormones that promote your baby’s growth.
- Brings in your antibodies to help defend your baby from infections and viruses. These antibodies will keep your baby’s body protected from certain sicknesses even after birth.
- Amniotic fluid – Amniotic fluid is what your baby floats around in during your pregnancy. Your body starts making amniotic fluid about 12 days after conception. During the first half of your pregnancy, the fluid is made up of water from your body (so the water you drink goes right into amniotic fluid). But starting around 20 weeks, the kidneys become fully-functioning and your baby begins to pee! So in the 2nd half of your pregnancy, amniotic fluid consists of water and baby pee. Whether it’s made of pee or water, amniotic fluid is totally safe for your baby. In fact, your baby breathes, drinks, and smells amniotic fluid all day, every day.
The amniotic fluid serves multiple functions in your child’s development including:
- Allows the baby to move freely in the womb so your baby’s bones can grow and strengthen
- Helps the baby’s lungs and digestive system develop with every amniotic fluid-filled breath and swallow
- Prevents the umbilical cord from being tangled so it can keep delivering nutrients to your child
- Maintains a proper temperature for your baby’s growth (like a perfect bath all the time)
- Protects your baby from injury that could be caused by sudden movements or accidents
- Delivers additional nutrients from the amniotic sac (the casing that holds your baby and the amniotic fluid)
So finally, here’s how your digestive system and your baby’s work together:
- A pregnant woman eats a delicious snack which is then broken down in her digestive organs.
- The nutrients from that snack are absorbed into her bloodstream.
- The blood stream delivers the nutrients to the baby through the placenta and the amniotic fluid.
- From there, the baby’s body puts the nutrients to use to help him grow throughout your healthy pregnancy.
When your child makes his way into the world, what his mother eats can still impact his diet. A baby who breastfeeds eats what his mother eats because your body uses the vitamins and minerals in your healthy food and beverages to produce breast milk. This doesn’t mean that your baby cannot develop a vitamin deficiency. See our blog for more information about the signs of vitamin d deficiency in babies.
Much like the bloodstream delivers nutrients to your unborn baby through the placenta and the amniotic fluid, the bloodstream brings vitamins and minerals (along with infection-fighting antibodies) to your breast tissue as a breastfeeding mother. The mammary glands turn those nutrients into ingredients for breast milk. From there, it’s bottoms up for baby!
What about taste? Can my baby taste my food?
It depends on what you eat, but yes, some of the flavors you enjoy your baby will experience as well, in the womb and out.
Taste is a combination of the ability to smell and the ability to taste. If you’re wondering, “Do babies have taste buds”, the answer is yes! Your baby’s taste buds are developed as early as 13 weeks after conception, and your baby’s sense of taste (specifically, the brain cells that process smell called the olfactory neurons) are developed 6 or 7 weeks into pregnancy. In fact, your baby will have a sense of taste before she has toenails! But how do the flavors of what you eat make it to your baby?
The amniotic fluid.
In one study, pregnant women were given either garlic capsules or sugar capsules to ingest. Afterwards, a routine sample of amniotic fluid was extracted from their womb. Then, a panel of study participants were asked to smell the samples to see if they could identify garlic versus sugar (90% of taste is perceived through the sense of smell).
Julie Mennella, head of the study and infant tastes researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, said that the smell-testers had an incredibly easy time discerning which samples had garlic and which ones had sugar. Since a growing baby drinks several ounces of amniotic fluid a day, it’s safe to say that your child gets to enjoy a taste of your meals daily!
Minella notes that strong flavors have the most impact on amniotic fluid like:
“But wait,” you might be thinking. “I thought my digestive system extracts the nutrients from the food I eat. Why are flavors still detectable in my amniotic fluid?”
The nutrient extraction process isn’t a pristine one. Particles of strongly-flavored food can come along for the ride in the bloodstream. Sometimes that results in your sweat smelling like garlic after eating a big plate of garlic fries, or your urine smelling like asparagus after eating the vegetable. The stronger the flavor, the more likely it is to be absorbed into your bloodstream and be deposited in amniotic fluid as well as breast milk.
Nourishing Your Child with Knowledge from SneakPeek Traits
As your pregnancy care provider has probably told you, what you eat when you’re pregnant can make a big impact on your child’s growth and development. But what happens when your child is out of the womb and in the world? What are the best first baby foods? How can you ensure she’s getting the nourishment her body needs? SneakPeek Traits offers a simple DNA test to fill your plate with insight about your child’s taste and nutrition profile, including genetic predispositions for:
- Vitamin levels
- Sensitivity to bitter foods
- Sleep behaviors
- And so much more!
Each DNA report comes with custom insights and tips to help care for your child, given her unique genetic profile, so you can provide the care her body needs to grow into its best self. Find answers and more today with SneakPeek Traits!
Cleveland Clinic. The Structure and Function of the Digestive System. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7041-the-structure-and-function-of-the-digestive-system
Mount Sinai. Amniotic Fluid. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/special-topic/amniotic-fluid
Baby Center. The placenta: What it is and how it works. https://www.babycenter.com/pregnancy/your-baby/the-placenta-what-it-is-and-how-it-works_40005564
NPR. Baby’s Palate and Food Memories Shaped Before Birth. https://www.npr.org/2011/08/08/139033757/babys-palate-and-food-memories-shaped-before-birth