Growing better brains? Pregnancy and neuroscience discourses in English social and welfare policies

Pam Lowe*, Ellie Lee, Jan Macvarish

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In recent years, English welfare and health policy has started to include pregnancy within the foundation stage of child development. The foetus is also increasingly designated as ‘at risk’ from pregnant women. In this article, we draw on an analysis of a purposive sample of English social and welfare policies and closely related advocacy documents to trace the emergence of neuroscientific claims-making in relation to the family. In this article, we show that a specific deterministic understanding of the developing brain that only has a loose relationship with current scientific evidence is an important component in these changes. We examine the ways in which pregnancy is situated in these debates. In these debates, maternal stress is identified as a risk to the foetus; however, the selective concern with women living in disadvantage undermines biological claims. The policy claim of neurological ‘critical windows’ also seems to be influenced by social concerns. Hence, these emerging concerns over the foetus’ developing brain seem to be situated within the gendered history of policing women’s pregnant bodies rather than acting on new insights from scientific discoveries. By situating these developments within the broader framework of risk consciousness, we can link these changes to wider understandings of the ‘at risk’ child and intensified surveillance over family life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-29
Number of pages15
JournalHealth, Risk and Society
Issue number1
Early online date6 Jan 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

© 2015 The Author(s). Published by Taylor & Francis.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


  • family policy
  • foetal development
  • maternal stress
  • neuroscience
  • pregnancy
  • risk
  • risk consciousness


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