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Enhancing Our Babies’ Innate Expression

By Jeanne Ohm, DC

When my husband and I became parents, we had a strong recognition that children were intelligent, conscious beings responsive to their surrounding experiences. The world around us was waking up with what was termed the “Human Potential Movement.” From the vitalistic premise of that movement, we deduced that life is naturally intelligent, and with intelligence comes organization, natural laws and a sense of order based on principles of function. This premise informed all aspects of our views on family wellness: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Because the vitalistic perspective recognizes that there is wisdom in how life is organized, we deduced that which is most natural and supportive of normal physiology is usually the optimal choice.

For example, a natural birth with no intervention appears to be most consistent with the vitalistic paradigm. That includes allowing labor to start on its own, supporting the mother’s innate need to move in labor, freeing her to progress at her own pace and birth in her position of choice, and allowing her to stay connected to her body without artificial induction or pain meds. These birthing practices indicate a respect for the intelligence that supports the mother’s natural, normal physiology. Delayed cord clamping after birth, immediate and continued contact between mother and baby, co-sleeping, on demand breastfeeding, baby wearing, and caressing and nurturing our babies are all normal, vital functions that naturally support human neurology so our children can maximize their inborn potential. Avoiding alterations to our children’s neurology, their anatomy, their natural immune responses and their individual psychological expression are also choices that are naturally compatible to the unfolding of human potential.

It has been almost 40 years since obstetrician Frederick Le Boyer published Birth Without Violence, a major contribution to the growing Human Potential Movement. It was in that same decade that doctors of chiropractic began showing their patients videos of hospital births to emphasize the crude physical trauma applied to most babies’ necks and spines during routine birth procedures. Yes, the physical, chemical and emotional traumas mothers and their babies are exposed to through hospital procedures during and after birth may very well be one of the biggest contributors to the increase of discord in the western world.

Polyvagal Theory

Stephen Porges, Ph.D., introduced a new model of the autonomic nerve system (ANS) in 2011 called the “Polyvagal Theory.” John Chitty, founder of the Colorado School of Energy Studies, has written extensively on the subject, branching into therapy modalities for healing emotional traumas. The following is Chitty’s succinct interpretation of Porges’s theory.

The Polyvagal Theory is a new understanding of the autonomic nerve system (ANS), arising from the research and writings of Stephen Porges, Ph.D. It uses solid scientific evidence to significantly change the previous commonly accepted view of the ANS, with huge implications for trauma therapies. The ANS is the neuro-endocrine-immune structure that enables survival. Traditionally it has been described as having two branches, parasympathetic (rest/rebuild) and sympathetic (fight/flight). The parasympathetic branch takes care of essential background operations, such as the heart, lungs and digestion, while the sympathetic branch provides stress responses and procreation strategies and functions. Polyvagal Theory, named for the anatomical basis of Porges’s discoveries, changes the picture. Now the ANS has three branches, not two, and they are sequential, not reciprocal. (Actually, “polyvagal” is a misnomer, and not a fully accurate descriptor of the new concept, because the vagus nerve is only one component of the newly-defined third branch. Therefore, in this summary, the new understanding will be referred to by the phrase, “Triune Autonomic.”)

The Triune Autonomic view is based on phylogeny, the study of the evolution of living organisms. For example, all animals have some strategy for acquiring food, absorbing nutrients and expelling cell waste. Very primitive, simple animals are stationary feeders in a liquid environment. Later animals developed ways to move about to find food, and modern animals developed capabilities for using tools, social organization, and long-term planning. Throughout the evolutionary chain, survival is the supreme criteria: Characteristics that enhance survival are perpetuated in subsequent form and function.

In the ANS, the parasympathetic system is the oldest, reflecting the survival needs of a primitive passive feeder. It delivers nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood to the system, particularly the brain, and its components regulate heart, lungs and viscera. At a parasympathetic level, stress responses are primarily limited to adjusting the metabolic rate within a fairly narrow range, and “death feigning” survival tactics.

The sympathetic nerve system is a later development, adding mobility and a wider range of possible survival responses. Newer animals gained more survival options in essential procreative, feeding and protective behaviors. Limbs for movement and increased sensory awareness developed, and muscular/structural tissues became more sophisticated. The sympathetic system acts as a controller on the primitive parasympathetic system to give a wider range of metabolic responses, shifting resources to muscular, visceral or other systems as needed in response to survival challenges.

Porges has shown clear evidence of a third, more modern branch of the ANS, with a survival value specific to more sophisticated animals, especially primates. The “social nervous system” is Porges’s proposed term for this third branch of the ANS. As brain complexity increases, it takes much longer for newborns to become self-sufficient. In humans, many years are necessary before their enhanced survival capabilities are fully operational. Therefore, structures evolved to secure dependent care for this extended time. Certain emotional affects, specifically the love feelings between a mother and baby, are evidence of this survival mechanism. The social nervous system exists as a controller over the sympathetic system to moderate the more crude “fight/flight” responses to accommodate this dependency.

The anatomy of the social nervous system consists of tools that bond a newborn to the mother. These include voice, hearing, visual contact and facial expression, which are each capable of triggering neurotransmitters inducing pleasurable sensations in the caregiver. These are “hardwired,” precognitive functions that exist in newborns and have a compelling power to engender emotional bonding and biochemical events that we interpret as love, thereby securing protective care during the vulnerable period. Healthy babies exhibit these instantly upon delivery. They experience unsuccessful deployment of these strategies (i.e., betrayal by or alienation from the caregiver) as immediately life-threatening, and justifiably so.

Drawing on the “Theory of Dissolution” (J.H. Jackson, ca. 1910), Porges also shows that under stress, the human system tries its newest, most sophisticated and efficient equipment first. If that doesn’t work, older strategies are attempted, and if they don’t work, the oldest resources are employed. Therefore, under stress, the human first uses its social/relational tactics, then fight/flight, then immobility, as survival strategies. Each of these stages has characteristic indicators. Also it is clear that with trauma, capacity for using the newer strategies can be eroded, with the older strategies becoming the habitual basis for response.

The New ANS Anatomy

“Three neural circuits form a phylogenically ordered response hierarchy that regulates behavioral and physiological adaptation to safe, dangerous and life threatening environments.”—Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory

Parasympathetic “A primitive passive feeding and reproduction system creating a metabolic baseline of operation to manage oxygen and nourishment via the blood.”

Sympathetic “A more sophisticated set of responses enabling mobility for feeding, defense and reproduction via limbs & muscles.”

Social Engagement “A sophisticated set of responses supporting massive cortical development, enabling maternal bonding (extended protection of vulnerable immature cortex processors) and social cooperation (language and social structures) via facial functions.”

“The whole sequence is played out in a sub-optimum hospital birth. Newborn babies come out pre-programmed for maternal bonding, including skin-to-skin contact and nursing. Instead they are separated from their mothers (“infant quarantine”) and subjected to painful unnatural procedures, facilitated by mainstream medicine’s old belief that babies are insentient. Since the social engagement system impulses are thwarted, babies then try the older strategy, the sympathetic ANS in the form of angry-sounding crying. When that doesn’t work, and it cannot work unless the adults are sensitive and discerning about such sounds, all they have left is the parasympathetic freeze/immobilization response. The misunderstanding caregivers may interpret this seemingly quiet state as being “good babies,” when actually they are seriously compromised, with potential long-term implications such as reduced immune system, heart rate variability and other ANS functions. Many research studies have repeatedly confirmed the reality and value of a functional social engagement system: Patients with strong and active social connections recover faster and live longer.”

—Excerpted from: Dancing with Yin and Yang by John Chitty, Chapter 6: The Autonomic Nervous System.

Understanding Porges’s Polyvagal Theory may be the key to health, particularly when looking at birth. The physical and emotional traumas to both the mother and baby in modern birthing practices have a direct effect on the healthy development of the infant’s social vagal branch. By depriving children of the proper development of this nerve function from birth, we are directly affecting the social well-being of generations to come.