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Lifelong Lessons From The Womb

By Marcy Axness, PhD

Gone are the days when we could consider pregnancy a nine-month “grace period” before the job of parenting began. Mounting research tells us that everything we do— beginning, even, before conception—shapes our children in critical, life-altering ways.

Scientists are finding that our health throughout life is greatly determined by the prenatal circumstances in which we develop. This fetal “programming” is different from what happens in conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome, where the toxic effects of the womb environment are noticeable at birth, or early in life. New findings in fetal development indicate that certain conditions may not show up until as late as an individual’s forties or fifties! For example, we now know there are strong links between low birth weight and heart disease, poor gestational nutrition and diabetes, and links between high birth weight and breast cancer in women.

The practical effect of this research doesn’t mean pregnant mothers should panic. Rather, they should be vigilant about following the nutritional guidelines provided by their doctors or midwives, such as getting enough folic acid (beginning before conception), eating enough of the proper foods during pregnancy, and gaining the recommended amount of weight.

Minds Shaped in the Womb

There is far more to an individual than his or her physical body, and scientists now recognize that it is during fetal development that the personality begins to form. This supports findings from the field of prenatal and perinatal psychology, which have long suggested that circumstances surrounding conception, pregnancy, labor, birth and the postpartum period have profound influences on lifelong emotional health and well-being. Countless fascinating case histories in the scientific literature support the connection between experiences in utero and certain compulsions, repetitive behaviors, fears and fascinations in later life.

Current research reveals that circumstances surrounding conception can affect the developing child. For example, a 1993 cross-cultural study found that infants whose conceptions had been planned showed higher levels of cognitive capacity and attachment to their mothers at three months of age than did unplanned infants whose mothers received the same level of prenatal care.

The area of brain development is receiving increased attention from the scientific community. Scientists now know that a pregnant woman’s moods have a significant impact upon her baby’s brain development in the womb. Data from rigorous studies indicate that a pregnant mother’s chronic stress has long-term negative effects upon the developing brain of her fetus, including an increased predisposition to depression and a lower tolerance for stress later in life.

While we’re in the womb, our brains seemingly develop in direct response to our mother’s experience of the world. If a mother is plagued by anxiety or stress during her pregnancy, the “message” communicated to her baby (via stress hormones) is that they are in an unsafe environment—regardless of whether or not such information is factual. The baby’s brain will actually mutate, or adapt, to prepare for the unsafe environment into which it expects to arrive. Chronic stress in pregnancy tends to sculpt a brain suited to survive in dangerous environments: quick to react, with reduced impulse control and a dampened capacity to remain calm and content. Chronic joy, by contrast, allows for the optimal development of each organ, the brain in particular—predisposing the baby to greater health and serenity. Such traits constitute the foundations of lifelong personality.

The Roots of Discontent

Here, it seems, we see “science and spirit” intersecting. Hard research from the field of neuroscience is now giving empirical credence to what many esoteric and spiritual traditions have maintained through the ages—that during the time we are being knit together in the womb, we are wired with lifelong lessons about who we are and how we fit into the world.

If a pregnant mother’s thoughts and emotions are persistently negative—if she is under unrelenting stress—the internal message delivered by hormones to the developing baby is, “It’s a dangerous world out there,” and the fetal brain is then wired to thrive in a dangerous world.

The kind of brain that is wired for stress is reactive, impulsive and short on attention. There are theories that disorders such as ADD, ADHD and OCD may have formed their roots in the womb, where the brain’s basic regulatory wiring is laid. Although the origins of autism remain a mystery, science has identified certain zones of “malfunctioning circuitry” in brains of autistic people— such as in the area that processes faces. Why is this?

One place to look—though few have—is the development that occurs during and immediately after birth. This is a period of rapid reorganization of brain development, mediated by many hormones—most notably oxytocin, the so-called “love” or “bonding” hormone. Several studies have found that autistic children show abnormalities in their oxytocin system.

Early circuitry-wiring of the orbitofrontal cortex—our socialemotional “success center”—occurs just after birth, when a complex hormonal cocktail orchestrates intricate exchanges between a mother and her newborn child, all organized around their faceto- face engagement. In spite of much scientific data attesting to the neurobiological havoc that ensues for a newborn separated from its mother after birth, hospital protocols nonetheless typically disturb the first hours of life. The result is that many newborns end up receiving a “faulty imprint,” causing the newborn to connect with things instead of people. This can prevent healthy synaptic formation in social areas of the brain, such as those responsible for processing faces and, indeed, human rapport.

What’s a Mother-to-Be to Do?

The research may sound daunting and hopeless, but parents who know a few basics of fetal development hold an important key to their children’s lifelong emotional health and well-being. Parents need to be mindful of the unceasing question being asked by the baby in the womb: What kind of world am I coming into, Mommy? It’s a question continually being answered chemically and energetically via the mother’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. When parents understand that this basic question— and its nine months worth of answers—drives fundamental aspects of their baby’s brain development, they realize how important it is for the pregnant mother to feel supported, loved and safe. These feelings ensure that their baby can arrive ready to love and learn, not struggle and fight.

Author and teacher Laura Huxley offers this practical suggestion in her book, The Child of Your Dreams: “If you can take even five minutes a day to think good thoughts, listen to your favorite music, or nourish yourself in any way you want, your kindness will be multiplied a thousandfold and become an organic part of a person’s being for years to come. Five minutes of care is worth years of well-being.” U.C. Berkeley biology professor Marian Diamond points out that the Japanese have said this for more than 2,000 years, with the phrase “Tykio,” meaning “think pleasant thoughts.”

The situation is similar for a father-to-be. One of the best ways that a “pregnant father” can contribute to his baby’s optimal development in the womb is to love, support, celebrate and cherish his baby’s mother—and to dream of the great and noble qualities he wishes for his child. His perception of life strongly influences his baby’s mother, who will relish his strength, creativity and sense of hope at this momentous time.

One of the best ways you can support your baby’s psychological development in the womb is to embrace pregnancy as an honor and to greet your baby as an aware being, registering everything you do and say. This conscious approach to prenatal parenting leads to healthy child development, cultivates early loving relationships toward your unborn child, and strengthens your parental and family bonding at the very start. There’s no reason to wait…and every reason not to.

Marcy AxnessAbout the Author:

Marcy Axness, Ph.D., is an early-development specialist, parent counselor, and adjunct professor at Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. She welcomes contact via Quantum