Study: Cellphones and beepers should be placed far away from the fetus’s head to prevent ‘startle reflex’

Cellphones that wake pregnant moms also wake the babies in their wombs. The same things happen to both the mommy and the baby, according to a recent study.

In a limited study confined to a couple of dozen resident physicians, the effect of successive beepers and cellphone use was closely monitored among them.

“We wanted to see what these devices can do to the fetus,” said study co-author Dr. Boris Petrikovsky, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of maternal and fetal medicine at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in New York City.

“And actually what we figured out is that if you’re a baby in-utero [in the womb] and someone wakes you up every hour, you will not be a happy camper. The sound, and perhaps even vibrations, cause a lot of ‘startle reflex’, which disturbs the normal sleep cycle,” he said.

What isn’t clear from this study is whether or not being repeatedly startled has any effect on fetal health or pregnancy outcomes.

Previous research done on pregnant resident physicians showed higher than the normal rates of complicated pregnancy, including problems such as premature birth, very high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia), and low baby weight. Their job as medical interns made it necessary for them to carry cellphones and beepers with them.

“We can’t say that this is definitely causing the higher pregnancy risk that has been seen,” Petrikovsky added. “But we can say for sure that cycles of normal fetal behavior are definitely disturbed or interrupted by the frequent use of cellphones and beepers.”

The results of the study will be submitted by Petrikovsky and his co-author, Evgeny Zharov, this week at a meeting of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to be held in San Francisco. The findings presented in the meeting are considered introductory until otherwise published in a peer- reviewed journal.

It was noted by the research team that 80 percent of practicing obstetrics and gynecology resident physicians are women, many of whom continue to discharge their duties while pregnant.

.The study involved 28 obstetrician and gynecologist residents, all of them in their 7 to 9 months of pregnancy.

They all packed beepers and cellphones with them and kept them just where the fetus’ head were. On 5 different occasions, the devices were rang up by five-minute breaks. The women then underwent ultrasound screening during these periods to give researchers time to evaluate the effect on the fetuses.

All the fetuses who were 27 to 41 weeks old showed addled reaction upon being exposed to a single ring. The reactions included turning of the head, opening of the mouth, or blinking of the eyes, according to the research authors.

When the devices were activated to successively ring every 10 minutes, 90 percent of the fetuses showed the same “startled reflex” akin to the initial occasion. Eighty percent of the fetuses continued to display similar reactions during the successive rings.

Researchers found out that most of the fetuses were able to adjust to the disturbances. When the beepers and cellphones were activated again every five minutes, the researchers noted a dramatic decline in “startled reflex” in more than 60 percent of the fetuses below 36 weeks of pregnancy and a reduction of reaction to 90 percent during the 9 month pregnancy.

Researchers concluded that continued exposure to the ringing of the beepers and cellphones when they are placed near the head of the fetus may have an effect on the normal behaviors of the fetus.

“Of course there are other factors that could contribute to a fetus being startled,” Petrikovsky acknowledged. “But it has previously been reported that pregnant women who reside in proximity to major airports, with planes constantly landing and taking off, also experience problems like this. So we know that noise, and especially repeated noise, can affect the baby,” he said.

“So we now recommend that women not carry cellphones and beepers in close proximity to their baby,” Petrikovsky added. “They should put it in their chest pocket or bag. The further away it is from the baby, the less chance the baby will be affected.”

Dr. Tomer Singer, an obstetrician and gynecologist at North Shore-LIJ Center for Human Reproduction in New York, noted that the results as “very interesting.”

However, Singer warned that “the study is very small and has no control group. Therefore, the authors’ conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt, as a much larger randomized prospective study is required in order to investigate and draw conclusions.”


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