The Twinkle In Your Parents’ Eyes: Conscious Conception And Conscious Pregnancy
You know the expression, “When you were only a twinkle in your parents’ eyes.” The phrase conjures up the happiness of loving parents who truly want to conceive a child. It turns out it is also a phrase that sums up the latest genetic research suggesting that parents should cultivate that twinkle in the months before they conceive a child. That growth-promoting awareness and intention can produce a smarter, healthier, happier baby.
Research reveals that parents act as genetic engineers for their children in the months before conception. In the final stages of egg and sperm maturation, a process called genomic imprinting adjusts the activity of specific groups of genes that will shape the character of the child yet to be conceived. Research suggests that what is going on in the lives of the parents during the process of genomic imprinting has a profound influence on the mind and body of their child—a scary thought, given how unprepared most people are to have a baby. Thomas R. Verny writes in Pre- Parenting: Nurturing Your Child from Conception, “It makes a difference whether we are conceived in love, haste or hate, and whether a mother wants to be pregnant…parents do better when they live in a calm and stable environment free of addictions and supported by family and friends.” Interestingly, aboriginal cultures have recognized the influence of the conception environment for millennia. Prior to conceiving a child, couples ceremonially purify their minds and bodies.
Once the child is conceived, an impressive body of research is documenting how important parents’ attitudes are in the development of the fetus. Again Verny writes: “In fact, the great weight of the scientific evidence that has emerged over the last decade demands that we reevaluate the mental and emotional abilities of unborn children. Awake or asleep, the studies show, they [unborn children] are constantly tuned in to their mother’s every action, thought and feeling. From the moment of conception, the experience in the womb shapes the brain and lays the groundwork for personality, emotional temperament, and the power of higher thought.”
Now is the time to stress that the New Biology is not a return to the old days of blaming mothers for every ailment that medicine didn’t understand—from schizophrenia to autism. Mothers and fathers are in the conception and pregnancy business together, even though it is the mother who carries the child in her womb. What the father does profoundly affects the mother, which in turn affects the developing child. For example, if the father leaves and the mother starts questioning her own ability to survive, his leaving profoundly changes the interaction between the mother and the unborn baby. Similarly, societal factors, such as lack of employment, housing and healthcare, or endless wars that pull fathers into the military, can affect the parents, and thus the developing child.
The essence of conscious parenting is that both mothers and fathers have important responsibilities for fostering healthy, intelligent, productive, joy-filled children. We surely cannot blame ourselves, nor our parents, for failures in our own or our children’s lives. Science has kept our attention focused on the notion of genetic determinism, leaving us ignorant about the influence beliefs have on our lives—and more important, how our behaviors and attitudes program the lives of our children.
Most obstetricians are also still uneducated about the importance of parental attitudes in the development of the baby. According to the notion of genetic determinism that they were steeped in as medical students, fetal development is mechanically controlled by genes with little additional contribution from the mother. Consequently, ob-gyns are only concerned with a few maternal prenatal issues: Is she eating well? Taking vitamins? Does she exercise regularly? Those questions focus on what they believe is the mother’s principal role, the provision of nutrients to be used by the genetically programmed fetus.
But the developing child receives far more than nutrients from the mother’s blood. Along with nutrients, the fetus absorbs excess glucose if the mother is diabetic, and excess cortisol and other fight-or-flight hormones if the mother is chronically stressed. Research now offers insights into how the system works. If a mother is under stress, she activates her HPA (hypothalamic-pituitaryadrenal) axis, which provides fight-or-flight responses in a threatening environment.
Stress hormones prepare the body to engage in a protection response. Once these maternal signals enter the fetal bloodstream, they affect the same target tissues and organs in the fetus as they did in the mother. In stressful environments, fetal blood preferentially flows to the muscles and hindbrain, providing nutritional requirements needed by the arms and legs, and by the region of the brain responsible for lifesaving reflex behavior. In supporting the function of the protectionrelated systems, blood flow is shunted from the viscera organs and stress hormones suppress forebrain function. The development of fetal tissue and organs is proportional to both the amount of blood they receive and the function they provide. When passing through the placenta, the hormones of a mother experiencing chronic stress will profoundly alter the distribution of blood flow in her fetus and change the character of her developing child’s physiology.
At the University of Melbourne, E. Marilyn Wintour’s research on pregnant sheep, which are physiologically quite similar to humans, has found that prenatal exposure to cortisol eventually leads to high blood pressure. Fetal cortisol levels play a very important regulatory role in the development of the kidney’s filtering units, the nephrons. A nephron’s cells are intimately involved with regulating the body’s salt balance, and consequently are important in controlling blood pressure. Excess cortisol absorbed from a stressed mother modifies fetal nephron formation. An additional effect of excess cortisol is that it simultaneously switches the mother’s and the fetus’s system from a growth state to a protection posture. As a result, the growth-inhibiting effect of excess cortisol in the womb causes the babies to be born smaller.
Suboptimal conditions in the womb that lead to low birth-weight babies have been linked to a number of adult ailments that Peter W. Nathanielsz outlines in his book Life In The Womb, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity. For example, Dr. David Barker of England’s University of Southampton has found that a male who weighs less than 5.5 pounds at birth has a 50 percent greater chance of dying of heart disease than one with a higher birth weight. Harvard researchers have found that women who weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth have a 23 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease than women born heavier. And David Leon of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has found that diabetes is three times more common in 60-year-old men who were small and thin at birth.
The new focus on the influences of the prenatal environment extends to the study of IQ, which genetic determinists and racists once linked simply to genes. But in 1997, Bernie Devlin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, carefully analyzed 212 earlier studies that compared the IQs of twins, siblings, and parents and their children. He concluded that genes account for only 48 percent of the factors that determine IQ. And when the synergistic effects of mingling the mother and father’s genes are factored in, the true inherited component of intelligence plummets even further, to 34 percent.
Devlin, on the other hand, found that conditions during prenatal development significantly impact IQ. He reveals that up to 51 percent of a child’s potential intelligence is controlled by environmental factors. Previous studies had already found that drinking or smoking during pregnancy can cause decreased IQ in children, as can exposure to lead in the womb. The lesson for people who want to be parents is that you can radically shortchange the intelligence of your child simply by the way you approach pregnancy. These IQ changes are not accidents; they are directly linked to altered blood flow in a stressed brain.
In my lectures on conscious parenting, I cite research, but I also show a video from an Italian conscious parenting organization, Associazione Nazionale Educazione Prenatale, which graphically illustrates the interdependent relationship between parents and their unborn child. In this video, a mother and father engage in a loud argument while the woman is undergoing a sonogram. You can vividly see the fetus jump when the argument starts. The startled fetus arches its body and jumps up, as if it were on a trampoline, when the argument is punctuated with the shattering of glass. The power of modern technology, in the form of a sonogram, helps to lay to rest the myth that the unborn child is not a sophisticated enough organism to react to anything other than its nutritional environment.