Prenatal Origins of Physical and Mental Health: What Our Babies Need for Optimal Development
by Myrna Martin
It has been nearly a century since pre and perinatal psychology were introduced by Otto Rank, a student and colleague of Sigmond Freud. His slim book, The Trauma of Birth, was a gift to his mentor and friend in 1924. This birthday surprise detailed how Rank thought that difficulty during birth could affect the psyche of the person being born in such a way that it would affect them the rest of their lives. While first warmly received by Freud, it was later rejected and the relationship between teacher and student was forever affected. Since then, this pattern of considering that babies have experiences that have lifelong implications has taken similar course in the world. A small cohort of practitioners took on the belief that yes, these early experiences do influence behaviour for a lifetime while the medical, scientific, and popular communities ignored, disengaged, or even repudiated this idea. Now, in 2012, a confluence of neuroscience, cellular biology, epigenetics (how the environment and genetics interact), trauma resolution therapies, and human development are indeed supporting the fact that experiences prenatally, during birth, and in the first year of life do indeed have lifelong implications for health and happiness. These experiences can affect the child in both positive and difficult ways, depending on what happens. Healing is possible in large measure, no matter what difficulties may occur.
Today it is understood that while the genes tell the body what to do and how to develop, electrochemical information in many forms coming from thoughts, feelings, and experiences that a person has will influence how the genes we are born with will function. In addition, chemicals in our environment will influence how the genes express themselves. Experiences that grandparents have will influence their grandchildren’s life, as these epigenetic changes can be multigenerational. Geneticists can now track a variety of diseases through the generations. Professionals can also track how experiences influence the baby in utero, especially high levels of stress.
This is what parents need to know: that how they are with their baby, starting preconception, can influence their baby’s development and also that of future generations.
Life is unpredictable and mostly not in our control, but we can do our best to positively influence the outcome.
Here is what parents can do:
- If a woman is considering getting pregnant she can most positively influence healthy gene selection by preparing at least three months in advance. Bruce Lipton and other cellular biologists show that what a woman experiences then can create an environment that influences which genes are selected, especially if she can avoid high stress or experiences of fear or loss. Women can take vitamins (esp. folic acid) and eat healthy foods, especially fish oils and other foods that positively influence neurological development.
- Potential parents can examine how attuned they are to their own emotions and how comfortable they are expressing these emotions with people they love and trust. Parents can begin to practice talking more about their feelings with each other to increase their own comfort levels with emotional expression. Parents who can do this with ease and help their children express and understand their emotions is one of the best predictors of children’s happiness and ability to self regulate feelings.
- Partners can create a loving and conscious atmosphere for conception. Most of us know that not all babies are planned, and even when planning, it can be stressful to conceive if there are patterns of infertility.
- Parents can also influence their baby’s development through communication with the baby in utero. This concept can be a stretch for some parents, but research has shown that babies can experience their parents’ intentions, and communication, even if they don’t understand the words. These babies exhibit enhanced visual, auditory, linguistic, and motor development; they sleep better, are more alert, confident, and content; there is less intervention; and the babies are bigger and stronger. These families also have more intense bonding and greater coherence. Parents can talk, read, play games through touch, and sing to their unborn.
- Stress plays an important role in human development. If it is truly overwhelming or toxic stress, like during war, domestic violence, a huge workload at the office, or adverse circumstances the mother feels she has no control over, then it can program the baby’s nervous system so he or she is hard to settle, negatively affecting sleep, communication, eating, and even motor and cognitive development. However, occasional moderate stress can support humans to be more resilient. Not all stress is bad! Moms can resource themselves through therapies such as massage and other forms of bodywork, meditation, relaxation techniques, exercise, walks in nature, or anything that helps a mom feel better and more in charge of her environment.
- Research has shown that we parent our own children in the same manner in which we were raised with up to 85% accuracy. The best way to prepare is to make sense of your history and address problems in the presence of a qualified counsellor. It is not what happened to us as children, but how we have come to terms with it.
- Seek out good prenatal care and select minimal intervention during birth. In addition, birth and postpartum doulas or women who can help with birth and the newborn can really help the new family off to the best possible start. Research has shown that the presence of a doula can decrease the need for interventions. If there has been a difficult birth or separation between mom and baby, then parents can use skin-to-skin practices and therapies to help repair and support bonding. This is effective even if the baby was adopted. Breastfeeding is also a best practice for optimal human development, but if that is not well established, parents can still support their children with health practices and play.
- Research now shows that the first 18 months of life in a human lays down the significant nerve pathways. The brain develops rapidly until age three when neurons not being used or stimulated will be pruned. Since a baby’s nervous system goes 10 times slower than an adult’s, parents and caregivers can slow down and provide appropriate enriching experiences through touch, music, rhythm, and communication.
- Moms and caregivers need to be encouraged to make themselves a priority. Babies will entrain with what a mom is feeling. If she is exhausted, anxious, depressed, lonely, nutritionally drained, then her baby will feel it. If mom needs to go back to work, families can select educated and resilient care providers to help the family make the transition.
One of our greatest spiritual challenges is living in the real world, and at every turn on life’s road, parents can feel blamed. Every parent wants the best for their child. Take time for yourself and your baby. Use your resources. Connect with other families and find a balance between function and overwhelm. Then get help if you need it. We need a cultural shift around moms and babies, but until then, we can chart our course with these pre and perinatal points in mind to support families.
Myrna Martin, MN, RCC, RCST, has 40 years experience working as Director of Nelson BC and Area Mental Health Services, and therapeutically as a nurse, family therapist, and craniosacral therapist. She is Director of the Kutenai Institute of Integral Therapies in Nelson BC, which offers courses in Pre and Perinatal Professional Training, Somatic Trauma Resolution, and Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. She will give a one-day seminar in Saskatoon, Nov. 28 on “Health Begins in the Womb” and also a “Birthing Yourself” process workshop Nov. 29 to Dec. 3. For more information, please see the display ad on this page, visit myrnamartin.net/processworkshops, or contact Susan Pulvermacher at firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 306-260-7981.