Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thoughts on Prenatal Psychology

For my first blog I would like to return to my interest in Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology (PPN) and how our current medical model of managed care can often negatively impact the optimal trajectory of human development. This topic is extensive and this blog was originally very lengthy, but I will keep this to a PPN introduction and more detailed thoughts about obstetrics and PPN will follow later.

Prenatal and perinatal research has demonstrated that a baby is conscious and aware during the prenatal period and that they  experience the mother's internal and emotional states. In the womb, babies are learning about themselves and the world around them through information obtained using their five senses as well as through the transfer of chemical messengers, such as hormones, in the shared maternal blood. Emerson (1998) discusses the long-term detrimental impact of many medical interventions on both the physical and psychological well-being of babies and reminds us that the mother's experience and perceptions of the pregnancy, labor, and birth not only influence her, but they also influence her baby (unborn and newborn).

I want to briefly address how this early learning is occurring through a simple understanding of behaviorism and reinforcement; a few examples may be the best way to do this. First, consider a mother who feels fear and intimidation whenever she thinks of, but especially sees, the baby's father and when he is around there is often loud disagreements. Not only is this fear felt by the baby (through maternal hormones crossing the placental barrier), but the baby also experiences the changes occurring in the mother's body (such as hearing the heart rate increase and change in tone of voice, yelling). We can see how the baby will quickly establish the association between the father's loud deep voice and fear/fight or flight. This learned behavior may become a foundational part of this baby and they may continue to have bodily reactions when they hear deep and loud male voices, they may shy away from loud confrontations, or conversely, they may learn to be loud and confrontational as well.

Let's also look at a positive example of this. The mother's heartbeat and the "whoosh" of blood being pumped throughout her body are the most dominating sounds for the unborn baby. Many experts believe that our time in the womb listening to this steady and reliable beat is why we enjoy the sound of drums, the tick of a metronome, the rush of water, and the clicking or humming of common environmental stimuli. The reinforcement provided in utero by the calming and steady heartbeat is why for babies are comforted outside the womb when they are held to someone's chest. This is also why many people sleep more soundly when there is white noise in the background such as a fan or air conditioner.

Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology is also demonstrating that babies are capable of picking up on conscious and unconscious thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of the mother in utero as well as other people around them after birth. This is a much greater discussion than will be addressed here, but the basis is that our heart and body send out a field of energy that is "felt" by others and provides information about our current state of being (anger, happiness, sadness...). You can find more about this at the Institute of HeartMath. I bring this up here to further support the need to respect the developing prenate and to use medical technologies in a conservative manner because we do not know the impact these interventions may have on the developing human psyche. An example of the prenate being affected by the thoughts and feelings of the mother can be seen in the case of a mother over age 35 who is told she is "high-risk" and her odds of having a baby affected by Down's Syndrome increases. This mother may receive a slew of extra exams, tests, and interventions and may begin to fear there is something wrong with her baby... the baby is awash in these emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Could these be influencing what the baby believes about themselves? What they believe their mother thinks of them? And since the mother is the entire world to this prenate, do they enter the world believing "it" thinks something is wrong with them too?

I write this first blog not only to begin my contributions to the world wide community, but also to bring more attention to the conscious abilities of the incredible human baby and to challenge everyone to give a little more respect where it is due. Some people argue that we cannot know what babies experience and that saying they are conscious and aware of their existence is unprovable... I feel that giving this respect to babies will not in any way harm their development, which cannot be said for many other false beliefs we have held in the past that have hurt so many.

You can also find resources and professionals from the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.

~Wisdom and Birth

Emerson, W. (1998). Birth trauma: the psychological effects of obstetrical interventions. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, 13(1), 11-44.

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