Friday, September 13, 2013

Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology ~ Healing Birth Trauma in Babies

I recently responded to a post on a Facebook parenting page, the mother wanted to know what she could do to help her 3 month old daughter heal from her birth. I encouraged her to look into the field of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology (PPN) and even mentioned a few names of leading practitioners in the field.

After recommending this, I began my own search to actually see what materials were available to parents who want to help their baby heal from a stressful or traumatic birth. This is when I truly realized that there is almost nothing currently available to guide parents in supporting their baby through a healing process. Most of what I found encouraged parents to seek clinical counseling from someone who specializes in PPN and I would encourage you to do this as well, for babies with severe trauma or residual issues from their prenatal, birth or postpartum experience. But here's the thing, PPN is hardly recognized and professionals that specialize in it are still few and far between.

So I will try to provide some thoughts and ideas for helping babies acknowledge and recover from their birth experience. These thoughts and strategies can be used by anyone (and should be used by all of us) to truly support the well-being and optimal growth of our young ones.

First, I am sorry that your baby had a negative or traumatic experience. It is likely that you did as well, or at least witnessing your child's pain has been difficult, and for this I am also sorry.

But, I do know that you searching for ways to help them is a big step and you are already helping your baby by recognizing their experience and believing that they can heal. You are doing something great for them; you are a great parent!

The following ideas can be applied at anytime for any baby, but if you are planning to help your child heal from a traumatic event, then you need to wait for the right time to address these traumatic experiences. This is not something that I can tell you how exactly when or how to do. There will be a 'right-moment' when your child is already stressed or suffering and you can begin to consciously and respectfully address what you hear, see, and receive from them. For some parents, you may know what triggers a regression to the traumatic experience and can initiate some of these strategies as appropriate before, during, or after this occurs.

Again, when and how to address traumatic experiences should be done with conscious care. Be respectful of your baby's feelings and treat them even better than you would want to be treated - you are helping to shape how this little human understands and views the world, how they think of themselves and what they deserve, and how they will view and treat others. You have the ability to make this tiny being more whole, just by loving them unconditionally!

This leads to the first thing you can do to support the healing process in your baby, or anyone for that matter.
  • Believe (in) them. You must believe their story, their experience, their perceptions, sensations, and beliefs of what they went through. But you also have to believe in them. Believe they are capable of healing, growing, adapting, and changing. Believe in their ability (and yours) to communicate with one another - no matter how impossible it may seem to some. Communication happens in more ways than just language, this understanding alone can open realms of new possibilities for interacting with your baby.
So that brings up the next important part of helping your baby heal.
  • Listen to your baby. This may sound crazy at first, but you aren't just listening with your ears - you are listening with your mind, heart, spirit - your whole being. Babies are incredible communicators, especially when they are around someone who is 'tuned in' to their ability to communicate. I have a feeling since you have searched this topic that you are already cognizant of your baby's ability to share how they are feeling and what they want or need... open up a little more and let this communication channel a little deeper and there will be times when the message your baby wants you to hear will be loud and clear. We can communicate with our vocalizations, body language, facial expressions, emotions, and even (or especially?) with our hearts and minds :)

"You will communicate more easily with your baby if you can set aside the myth that language is the foundation for thought. We are only beginning to understand that thought and communication are more fundamental than language. In fact, some would argue that thinking and communication are innately human, and integral part of consciousness, regardless of age... you are not limited to formal language in communicating with your baby."   
~ David Chamberlain, Babies Remember Birth (1988, p186)
  • Verbalize for them. This can apply for more than just healing. When you verbalize what you see your baby doing you are also helping them learn to speak! When you are in a moment with your baby, whether it is a momentary stressor, or something that triggered their traumatic memories or reactions, you can respectfully verbalize for your child those things they are struggling to release. The key word here is respect. No one feels better after someone demeans or abuses their feelings, you are playing the role of parent-counselor and need to be respectfully present, but somewhat removed from the emotional pull of their behavior. Go back to the first point if you need help in this, believe them - believe their experience is real for them and your role is to 'hold-space' in a peaceful and respectful way so they can find their way back to equilibrium. 
  •  Hold Space. Just be there. Be aware, conscious, respectful and allow the love you have for this tiny, incredible being to pour from your body and soul. Sometimes we just need someone to be with us while we fall apart and to love us as we come back together. For a baby this may look like holding them close while they have an emotional melt-down and keeping your heart, mind, and body calm, or better yet, resonate love and peace from within your heart, your soul, and let the baby experience how much you love them. Your peace will help bring them peace.
  • Observe, be in the moment. Your baby may be moving, reacting, and demonstrating what they want you to see. This goes back to communication, your child has ample ways to communicate with you, you only need to be aware that they may be trying to tell you something, a story perhaps. Being in the moment and observing your baby may help you see something you wouldn't have noticed before. Are they wiggling their head and body in a certain way when you hold them tight and close in your arms? Could this actually be because they are reminded of a tight-fit or a scary moment during their birth? Taking the time to observe your baby may help you see things in a way you hadn't seen them before. You may need to let them play out the motion and verbalize what you see, their story, as it happens. Again, be respectful. If your baby is scared, help calm them; remember not to push someone to do something they are not willing to do, especially babies. Support their growth and peace. You may be able to explain why they felt they were stuck, what mommy was doing to help them get out, and how scared they felt, but how brave they were. These verbalizations and observation of their story may be what they need - to have their experience recognized and be able to move forward!

An example may be the best way to portray this for some readers. This is an excerpt from Dr. Wendy A. McCarty's book Welcoming Consciousness. This is her own personal account of witnessing psychotherapy for birth trauma in a three-month-old:

"Dr. Emerson showed a video of a treatment session he had with a young baby. The baby was portraying movement patterns and emotional expressions associated with a difficult portion of his birth. It appeared that he and the baby were having a very intimate mutual communication about it. In that moment, I experienced the baby's depth of presence, his capacity to communicate with and understand Dr. Emerson's communication with him. Dr. Emerson quietly acknowledged to the baby how similar the baby's present experience felt to a particularly difficult time in his birth, empathizing with the baby's experience. At one point the baby was in a deep and quiet stillness as he looked into Dr. Emerson's eyes and I was filled with the sense that the baby's expression was one of gratitude. His expression appeared to be conveying his appreciation of Dr. Emerson's "being with him in this place," and communicating in this way with him, I saw something in this interchange and in the baby's expression that I had never seen in babies before and it changed me." (p10).

The last point I think is important, and perhaps the most important, to communicating with your baby.
  •  Trust your instinct - follow your gut. What are your instincts telling you? What does your gut say your baby needs or is trying to communicate with you? I am betting that since you are seeking information on how to help your baby heal that you have already trusted your instinct in some way, this is wonderful, keep it up! Evidence of our ability to perceive the emotions, needs, thoughts, and feelings of others is quickly building up and those 'gut feelings' or instincts we have are evidence of our ability to pick-up on the energy around us. We all emit an energetic wave from our hearts and others can pick up on the messages being sent, so when you "just know" what your baby is trying to say, you are likely right! This is especially true for parents and those close to babies, particularly the mother because the two of you were literally entangled from before conception. You can learn more about how we communicate with our hearts at the Institute of Heartmath.

"PPN findings have consistently revealed that we thrive when we are welcomed, wanted, loved, and valued and related to as a person." 
~Wendy Anne McCarty,  Welcoming Consciousness (2005, p115)

These are just a few thoughts and strategies. In an ideal world we would all treat babies this way, all the time, but this isn't (yet) our reality. You have already helped your baby heal in some way by seeking out how to help them - in this way you have also acknowledged that they have been hurt and that they have the capability to heal. You are a good parent!

Try to adopt these strategies as ways to support and love your baby in a more 'whole' way. Start slowly if you need to, but don't wait, I promise your amazing baby will return your gesture in a wonderful way and your connection will grow deeper and stronger.

Babies are incredible, conscious beings that are capable of far more than we have historically given them credit for. You can read more about PPN here and some great PPN quotes about what babies are capable of here. You can also learn more from the Association of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.

Healing peace, love, and connection to you and your baby!
~Wisdom and Birth

The above information is not meant to replace medical or professional psychological/counseling advice. I have a background in Clinical Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and I seek to spread the knowledge I have gained to improve the human condition. Please always trust your gut and seek professional help if you or your baby need it!

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