A Visitor Within: The Science of Pregnancy (Making Babies in the US)

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A Visitor Within: The Science of Pregnancy (Making Babies in the US) by David Bainbridge
A Visitor Within: The Science of Pregnancy (Making Babies in the US) by David Bainbridge

THIS is the first book to explain the mechanisms of pregnancy to the general reader. It is firmly rooted in the belief that anyone can understand the biology of pregnancy if it is explained clearly. Most of all, reproduction is a story, and this is why I have written the book as the chronology of a single pregnancy from conception to breastfeeding.

Within the last twenty years, we have finally learnt enough about pregnancy for almost all of its story to be told. Now, for the first time, a coherent story of pregnancy can be told in a form that anyone can understand. This is why I believe this book is important: it is a guide to the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of pregnancy, at a time when pregnancy is about to become a controversial and emotive issue.

Modern technology will soon change pregnancy for ever, possibly even making it redundant. This change will affect all of us, and we need to know how pregnancy makes people if we are to make the right choices about whether to let people change pregnancy.

Yet despite the impending furore about how we can change pregnancy, this is a book about pregnancy ‘pure and simple’. Although a great deal has been written in the last few years about surrogacy, designer babies, human cloning and so on, I hope this book will convince you that natural pregnancy is far more interesting than any crude tinkerings that scientists have so far attempted. Nor does this book deal with the politics of childbirth, although many of the scientific findings that I discuss inform our attitudes and treatment of pregnant women and their babies.

As far as drama is concerned, natural pregnancy has it all: sibling rivalry, a battle of the sexes, questions of gender identity. We will see that studying pregnancy can help to tell us why people behave the way they do, why so many of us want to have children and even help us to understand who we are. After all, each of us is a little miracle, the product of a million-to-one coincidental meeting of one sperm and one egg that burgeons into a living, breathing person. Although everyday life may make us forget it, this chance encounter is at the root of each one of us.

In my experience, a few major questions crop up in most people’s minds when they wonder how we make our children. I like to call these the five ‘big questions’ of pregnancy, and I have made them the scheme for my book. Each chapter describes our attempts to answer one of these questions – to tell us a little more about the process of that makes every one of us.

A chapter by chapter synopsis

Chapter 1: ORIGINS

Why do we reproduce in the way we do?

People have long wondered why we reproduce in the way we do. Obviously, humans breed by having sex, by making sperm and eggs, and by a woman becoming pregnant, but why? Until the twentieth century, we simply had to accept that this is how people make children, and we often dignified this acceptance by making sex, fertility, male and female into primal forces in our myths of how the universe conducts its affairs.

In the last century, however, science has told us the answers to all these questions, and this is the subject of my first chapter. We now know the reasons why there are men and women, why they have to unite to make a baby, which parent contributes more to the baby, and why it is women who get pregnant.


How does a mother ‘know’ she is pregnant?

The first time that most couples know they are to become parents is when the little line on the pregnancy test turns blue. After the initial shock has subsided, many then wonder at the changes that are going on inside the mother’s body. She is no longer alone – she has a visitor. Although this visitor is tiny, it can completely take over its mother’s body almost straight away.

In Chapter 2, I recount how a renaissance doctor first wondered how the baby manages to secure its own future by stopping its mother menstruating. We will see how biologists had to crack the hormonal code that controls women’s menstrual cycles before they could find out how the embryo stops these cycles. The insidious take-over of a woman’s body by her baby is the cause of many of the hardships of pregnancy, including breathlessness, anaemia, and morning sickness.


How is a baby put together?

Many parents are amazed at how something as intricate as their baby can be put together in the space of nine months, and in Chapter 3, I explain how this is done. Since the ancient Greeks first speculated about how a baby is made from a formless mass of tissue, there have been many theories about what drives embryonic development.

In fact much of the history of biology has been driven by the quest to find out how a child is constructed. Over the centuries, it has gradually become clear how, within the first seven hectic weeks of pregnancy, the embryo changes from a single cell into a recognizable baby with eyes, ears, fingers and toes. During this scientific quest we have found out not only how we are made, but also why we are made this way.


Why does the mother accept the ‘foreign’ baby?

One of the most remarkable things about pregnancy is that it ever succeeds at all. Animals have spent most of their evolution trying to stop themselves being exploited by parasites, and to do this they have developed a formidable array of weapons to destroy would-be invaders.

Yet female mammals, including women, have had to turn this defence policy on its head so they can become pregnant. The fetus is a foreign being – half of it comes from its father – but even so, it is not attacked by its mother. The story of how a baby avoids being treated like a parasite or an organ transplant is told in Chapter 4. The coexistence of mother and baby is a triumph of the natural world, but it can have strange unforeseen effects – it can make the mother vulnerable to fatal diseases, and it may be the cause of homosexuality in men.


How do mother and baby survive birth?

Finally, birth is the climax of pregnancy – the moment at which the baby must make its bid to survive in the outside world. For much of human history childbirth was the most dangerous time in a woman’s life, and all too often it ended in disaster for the baby as well. Humans drew the short straw as far as birth in concerned – women have been left the evolutionary legacy of babies with enormous heads, and a pelvis only recently adapted for walking upright.

Although birth is now much safer in many countries, it remains a fundamental turning point in the life of both mother and baby. The baby must quickly adapt to survive in a completely alien environment – gasping, suckling and clinging its way into life. The mother must turn into a nurturing machine, hell-bent on giving her child the best possible start. A woman’s entire life story is designed with the express aim of making a success of pregnancy and birth. Menstruation, menopause, the pain of human childbirth – all these burdens are now thought to exist for the sake of that tiny baby.

Reviews and comments – feel free to send me more!

”This insight [into the selfishness of the embryo] explodes off the page, as do many others throughout the book. It reads like a whodunnit. A ripping yarn and irresistible – I read it at one sitting. One is left wondering how pregnancy works at all.’

‘Pregnancy is natural and may be a miracle. Bainbridge’s account of pregnancy, however, demands the defiance of nature and the acceptance of miracles…’

‘You thought you were having a baby. This book shows that your baby is having you.’

‘Technicalities in this book are leavened by zinging metaphors and a racy prose style, making it pretty much an effortless read.

Miriam Stoppard, (London) Times Higher Education Supplement

Making Babies purports to be a straightforward account of the intricate biological mechanisms of pregnancy and childbirth — the “hows and whys” of the physical changes that accompany a woman from conception through lactation. For the most part, it accomplishes its task neatly and compellingly. The scientific information is detailed but not unreadable, a welcome addition to the spoonfeedings of knowledge that most pregnancy guide books mete out. Bainbridge is, however, also fascinated by the links between myth and science — how birth-related ideas and imagery dating back to antiquity dovetail with what we now know through scientific research.

Judith Warner, Washington Post

The book was subsequently listed as one of the paper’s ‘book raves’ of 2001

A Visitor Within is the truly fascinating, scientific “nuts and bolts” story of how babies are made. Anyone who is contemplating parenthood or even reflecting on it after the event will be drawn into David Bainbridge’s excellent popularisation…’

‘He certainly knows what he is writing about. As a breech birth baby, he was perhaps predestined to be interested in why human birth can be so difficult’

Douglas Palmer, Amazon.co.uk

Making Babies is a marvellous book, from beginning to end. To appreciate this book you do not need an MD, a PhD or even a background in reproductive biology. All that is required is curiosity about the fascinating process of human pregnancy. As advertised, the book is entertaining and informative throughout. Bainbridge’s writing style is engaging and, much of the time, I found myself glued to the text.

Bainbridge has written a highly informative, enlightening and amusing book on human pregnancy. It certainly will be appreciated by a wide audience.

Paul Wassarman, Nature Medicine

…Bainbridge, a professor at London’s Royal Veterinary College, covers his subject like an academic reporting for the National Enquirer. His eye for the sensational and amusing aspects of pregnancy, combined with an understated sense of humor, results in a more digestible – but still solidly scientific – read .

…I was enthralled by Bainbridge’s account of conception in Making Babies…

Bethany Torode, Science and Culture

Dr Bainbridge, a veterinarian and researcher, has written a delightful and informative book on conception, pregnancy and birth in humans…

Impressively, he uses all of the scientific terminology without the reader feeling burdened with jargon. Dr Bainbridge is skilled at explaining complex processes simply…

…I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in human reproduction. In fact, this recommendation includes just about everyone…

…In Making Babies, Dr Bainbridge directly informs the reader about the basics of human reproduction; he also indirectly teaches you how to write a fine book.

Robert Tague, American Journal of Human Biology

We often speak of the miracle of birth, but Bainbridge’s book proves that the cliché has substance. Bainbridge explains complex processes with wit and clarity.

Barbara Bibel, Library Journal

What makes this book so good is that Bainbridge not only explains pregnancy clearly and easily, he does it in such an engaging way. Going beyond the usual anatomical fare, he gives the reader underlying theories and an evolutionary viewpoint of the biology of motherhood. And Bainbridge does what too few scientists are able to do: write about science in a way that a layperson can not only understand, but wants to read. This is an excellent example of how good science writing can be.

Meredith Small, Cornell University, author of ‘Our Babies, Ourselves’

I just wanted to say that I have just finished “A Visitor Within” and thought it was fantastic! An excellent read and I was disappointed when I reached the end. I loved all the little snippets of information perfect for telling your mates down the pub . . . Thanks for a great read.

Sarah Newman-Holden (reader, via e-mail)

This is the best book on pregnancy that I have found and believe me, I’ve read a lot of them. Unfortunately most of them seem to believe that it’s useful to compare your developing child to various pieces of fruit, “your baby is now the size of a grape”. Not very helpful when I want to know what’s actually going on. Yours is the only book I’ve read that explains in any kind of detail what is actually happening. This is a fascinating topic and I have found your book to be exceptionally well written. At least you assume that people who can read may also be able to think! Thank you.

Leslie Hyland (via e-mail)

David Bainbridge lectured me at the Royal Veterinary College and this was what compelled me to buy his book. This book goes about explaining very complex issues in a very simple, easy to understand way. It is very well written in the extent that it can be read by anybody from mother wanting to know more about her prospective child through to vet and medical students. An excellent book well worth reading! (quite funny in parts).

A reader (lifted from amazon.co.uk)

With grace, humor, and an enormous respect for pregnancy and mothering, Bainbridge takes us through a chapter-by-chapter account of what happens during pregnancy and, more importantly, why it happens.

M.K. Snooks, University of Houston, Choice

In this fascinating approach to pregnancy, Bainbridge poses questions that have perplexed scientists ever since the discovery that pregnancy is a partnership between mother and fetus.

Roni Ramos, Fit Pregnancy

It’s a pacey, fun read – get set to amaze your friends with your new scientific know-how.

Pregnancy and Birth

1 thought on “A Visitor Within: The Science of Pregnancy (Making Babies in the US)”

  1. A Visitor Within: The Science of Pregnancy is a must-read for anyone looking to learn more about the fascinating science behind pregnancy. Written by David Bainbridge, this book offers an in-depth look into the anatomy, physiology, and psychology of pregnant women. From conception through labor and delivery, readers are provided with clear explanations and illustrations that make it easy to understand the complexities of this amazing process.

    The book begins by discussing the basics such as hormonal changes, physical changes, and fetal development. It then delves deeper into topics such as nutrition, exercise during pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum care, prenatal screening tests, and more. Each chapter is written in an informative yet accessible manner and includes case studies to illustrate key points.

    What sets A Visitor Within apart from other books on pregnancy is its focus on the psychological aspects associated with it. For example, Bainbridge explains how hormones can affect emotions during pregnancy and explores how fear or anxiety may impact expectant mothers throughout their journey. He also provides advice on how to cope with any worries they may have while pregnant.

    Overall, A Visitor Within is an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about the science behind pregnancy. Its comprehensive coverage makes it a great read for both expecting parents and healthcare professionals alike. Highly recommended!


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