Friday, August 16, 2013

An Introduction to Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology: Birth Matters for Babies too!

Have you ever considered birth from the perspective of the baby?

It is likely that you haven't and it's probably because there is a pervasive belief in our culture that since we don't remember this time of our lives, we must not have the mental capacity to make judgements, feel emotions and even feel pain... yes seriously, pain. It was only in the early 1980s that the medical community was forced (by parents) to acknowledge babies can feel pain and to provide medication for surgeries, such as circumcision (1).

But let's think think about this. Babies can feel, see, taste, hear, touch, suck, kick, grasp, and react to external and internal stimuli while in the womb... neurons are firing, cells are working... isn't it a wildly flawed assumption to think that experiences during this time of our life don't matter?

Could it be possible that early experiences, such as those during pregnancy, birth, and infancy are stored within our incredible and rapidly developing brain, within our cells, and possibly even in our DNA?

The field of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology demonstrates that experiences during this period matter immensely to the tiny human and future adult. The contributions of PPN research and theory are widely under-utilized in the debate about humanizing our medical model of prenatal and birth care; I intend to add to the limited resources concerning this important topic and will attempt to introduce an emerging and fascinating field!

"How we are conceived, carried, birthed, and greeted matters greatly."
~The Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, Purpose Statement (2)

Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology (PPN) refers to the study of human life from conception through gestation, birth, and into the early postnatal period - a time when the earliest formative experiences and relationships create the foundation for all subsequent behaviors and interactions(3).

This early primary period of development is one of phenomenal growth and experiential learning - but what is perhaps more crucial about this time is that everything you are, and everything you will be, is founded upon and rooted deep within these early experiences and memories.

Everything you are, seriously?

Yes! Humans develop from single and separate entities (sperm and egg) which merge to become a single cell; which will eventually create all of you. Research has demonstrated that even a SINGLE CELL (from amoeba to human neurons) can learn in the simplest of ways - meaning that they can store a memory in its simplest form. One example of this is that individual cells of all kinds are capable of learning a pattern of shocks delivered by scientists and will react accordingly when they 'believe' another shock is coming. Amazing!

As the cells that create you are dividing they are also experiencing external and internal influences, such as encountering a healthy placenta during implantation, or one that is unhealthy and hardly habitable. These influences can cause cellular reactions, such as turning on or off of an epigenetic switch and these changes are passed on to daughter cells and the message is delivered throughout the developing embryo. This is one example of how experiences at all stages of our human development matter.

As the embryo grows in complexity it isn't hard to conceptualize their ability to react, store memories, and compare new experiences to old experiences - they have the ability to learn. Signals they receive from their environment (maternal or external) will be compared to previous experiences and the early foundations of behavior and self-identification (or beliefs about yourself and the world around you) will develop.

Your earliest experiences are stored as your most foundational memories, the ones that everything else is built upon.

For this reason, and the sensitivity of this developmental process, the prenatal period is vastly important for the optimal outcome of the baby and future adult... and their children, and our society, the planet, and so forth.

So what about birth?

"... the baby is a conscious participant in his or her own birth."
~Barbara Harper, Gentle Birth Choices (4)

So calm after a gentle and respectful birth experience

It is no longer acceptable to think that babies do not experience this time of their lives to the fullest of their capability... and let's be honest here, we have absolutely no idea how much capability a human infant may have, but so far throughout history we have always diminished their true abilities!

When the rapidly developing brain is taking everything in and building neuronal pathways that may be needed in the future, it gives even more reason to support providing babies with ethical and respectful care and ensuring their experiences are the most optimal they can be.

With few memories and experiences to pull from, early trauma has the propensity to be far more influential to the development of the baby's foundational understanding of themselves and the world around them - their self-blueprint, of sorts. Exposing the tiny and rapidly developing human to an onslaught of fear-inducing, painful, aversive, and even traumatic events may lead to certain fears, beliefs, and maladaptive behaviors in this infant.

Medical interventions routinely used during pregnancy and birth are often administered to babies in a manner that is fear inducing, traumatic, disrespectful, painful, and dehumanizing.

A typical (hospital) introduction to life outside the womb; a baby's perspective...

As baby emerges they are met with blindingly bright lights and multiple unfamiliar voices, which is likely disorienting and mildly stress inducing to say the least. Often their nose will be suctioned moments after their head emerges, a sudden and possibly violent attack on their sensitive face.

Defending himself - only moments after being born

Perhaps they are left alone for a few minutes "for observation" under the warming lights, almost immediately after birth - without comfort and a loving embrace. Alone in a new world, one in which their first cries for love, for help go unanswered - or may even be met with cold hands that poke, prod, and handle their fragile body roughly.

So, from the baby's perspective, they have previously experienced very little stimulation of their sense of touch (in the womb) and their first touch outside the womb is that of being rubbed, roughly, by scratchy hospital blankets. They have only begun to breathe air through their nose and mouth, but have now had these orifices plunged and sucked forcefully... and they haven't even had a chance to breastfeed - now, perhaps, finding anything near their mouth aversive and requiring loving coercion to try the breast. Their eyes are blinded by phenomenally bright lights and then smeared with ointment - their first experiences using their eyes outside the womb for the first time. They may be pricked in the foot, a startling sensation to such sensitive skin that has never felt anything rougher than the inside of his warm and squishy cave for the past 10 months.

What might babies be thinking and experiencing when we carryout routine procedures, often aggressively and completely separated from their mother? What would you think if you were new to this whole situation and such things happened to you?

 ..."sentience and consciousness are permanent aspects of the human psyche. There are no free periods at the beginning of life when violent treatment can be offered babies in the name of science, even "for their own good." 
~David B Chamberlain, Obstetrics and the Prenatal Psyche (5)

It is becoming strikingly clear that our early experiences in utero and during birth are directly related to our health and quality of life throughout the lifespan. We can no longer ignore our routine use of inhumane birth practices and disrespectful and harmful care, provided to the majority of our population.

No matter how a mother decides to give birth, or what the circumstances call for (an emergency cesarean, etc.), interventions can be delivered in a manner that is respectful and caring to both the mother and the baby... they absolutely deserve nothing less!

It is time to treat the MotherBaby in a more humane manner during prenatal and birth care - as well as time for us to acknowledge the incredible nature of babies and to respect them as they deserve. Through them we can create a better future!

~Wisdom and Birth

Note: Not all is lost if your birth experience was traumatic for you or your baby! Seek professional counseling and treatment to discuss your pain, fears, and stresses. There are some therapists that treat babies for birth and early infant stress/trauma; there are also things you can do with your baby at home. One simple way to heal anyone's pain is to recognize their experience out loud, with them - this is an aspect of what works so well in counseling. Just 'holding space' and being with someone while they share their experience with you can begin the healing process. Babies communicate with us in many ways, is your baby trying to share their pain, fear, stress or memory with you? Be with them, observe and listen. Say aloud what you think they are trying to tell you (even if it is just what pops into your head!) and allow your baby to communicate their experiences with you and through you.

(1). Chamberlain DB. Babies remember pain. Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health, 1989; 3(4):297-310. Retrieved August 16, 2013 from
(2). Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, Purpose Statement. Found in: Welcoming Consciousness: Supporting babies wholeness from the beginning of life. (2009) by Wendy Anne McCarty.
(3). Lyman BJ. Foundations of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology [Powerpoint]. Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. January 2011. 
(4). Harper B. (2005). Gentle Birth Choices. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, Vermont. 
(5). Chamberlain DB. Obstetrics and the prenatal psyche. Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health, 1999; 14(1): 97-118.

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