How To Prepare For The Emotional Health & Future Life Experiences of Your Child Before Conception!
Kate White, MA, LMT, & Myrna Martin, MN, RCC, RCST: Posted on Friday, January 15, 2016 9:47 PM
Pre-and Perinatal Experiences For Health and Healing.
It has been nearly a century since pre- and perinatal psychology was introduced by Otto Rank, a student and colleague of Sigmund Freud. His slim book, The Trauma of Birth, was a gift to his mentor and friend in 1924. This birthday surprise detailed how Rank thought that difficulty during birth could affect infants’ psyches in such a way that it would affect them the rest of their lives. Although Freud warmly received the gift, he later rejected Rank’s hypothesis, souring the relationship between teacher and student. Since then, this idea has followed the same pattern in the world at large. A small cohort of practitioners accepted the belief that yes, babies’ early experiences do influence behavior for a lifetime, while the medical, scientific and popular communities ignored, disengaged or even repudiated this idea.
Now, in 2012, human development and a confluence of disciplines—neuroscience, cellular biology and trauma resolution therapies— are supporting how early experiences have lifelong implications for health and happiness. These experiences— prenatally, during birth and in the first year of life— affect the child in positive and difficult ways, depending on what happens. Healing is possible, no matter what difficulties occur.
After Otto Rank, several influential practitioners took up the thread that these early life experiences were deeply meaningful, yet it was not until the 1960s, after the publication of research articles on how caregivers and babies interact, that the vital importance of this early bond received scientific support. This research detailed how the style of attachment between mother and baby could have lifelong and multigenerational implications. Later, the U.S. government designated the 1990s the Decade of the Brain, and directed considerable funding toward scientific research into embryology, neurology and related fields, especially the human genome project. It was thought that humans had more than 100,000 genes that could be mapped, and therefore disease and health could be easily tracked and hopefully manipulated for the greater good. Only 25,000 genes were discovered, however, and research turned toward looking at how the environment influenced gene expression. This field of study is called “epigenetics,” or how the environment and genetics interact. With the birth of this new era of the epigenome, the nature/nurture wars can finally be settled.
These days, researchers, scientists, therapists, medical doctors and other professionals realize that while the genes tell the body what to do and how to develop, electrochemical information in many forms coming from a person’s thoughts, feelings and experiences influence how the genes function. In addition, chemicals in the environment around a human will influence how the genes express themselves. These epigenetic changes can be multigenerational: Experiences that grandparents have, especially at crucial developmental times, influence their grandchildren’s lives. Geneticists are now tracking a variety of diseases through the generations. Professionals can track how experiences influence the baby in utero, especially high levels of stress.
Parents and professionals need to know that how they are with their baby, even before conception, can influence their baby’s development and also that of future generations. Mothers, fathers and families can look at this paradigm and take away what many mothers have asked for over and over: an instruction manual for being with babies and children that will help them help their children to find happiness in the world. Every parent wants the best for his or her child.
Those of us supporting human development know best practices and optimal processes that parents can consider, and also can offer support if life experiences have been difficult. Life is unpredictable and mostly not in our control, but we can do our best to positively influence the outcome. Metaphorically, we can chart our course like a sailor consulting the starry sky. Let us consider positive early life experience as a constellation of stars, each contributing to a child’s well-being:
- Ancestral lineage—people are securely attached and there is no disease (rare)
- Father and mother are “conscious” and prepared for baby
- Lovemaking is tender and intentional
- Conception and implantation are easy
- Uterus is healthy and baby is growing in a good spot
- Mother and father lead healthy lives, with mild to moderate stress
- Good and regular prenatal care
- Birth is optimal, natural, with no interruption— not too short, and not too long
- Baby is not separated, has lots of skin-to-skin contact, “self-attaches”; there is no difficulty breastfeeding
- Neonatal period is relaxed and uneventful; completely breastfed on demand until at least 6 months
Pre- and perinatal approaches to health and healing can be broken down into several broad areas that support human development prior to conception through the first few years of life. This makes supporting new families of vital importance. These days, neuroscience, cellular biology, attachment research and advances in understanding genetics and the brain all support these best practices. As mentioned before, this was not always the case.
Patterns of Attachment
Secure attachment or interpersonal health is one process that can be highlighted that crosses all disciplines and development stages. Attachment, or the bond between parent (caregiver) and child, has been intensely studied since the 1960s, starting with the research of Sir John Bowlby. Generations of researchers have studied the impact of caregiver behaviors on human development, eventually leading professionals to categorize these relationships resulting from his initial observations. Training programs now exist to teach all kinds of professionals how to recognize trauma in these early relationships, as well as patterns of behavior that can influence a person’s worldview. Many aspects of cognitive and physical health have their roots in this one aspect of human life.
Today, researchers can effectively predict with 85 percent accuracy which attachment style a parent will develop with her child, based on how she was treated as a child and how she has since come to terms with it. The bottom line is that children need the presence of a non-stressed, consistent caregiver who is attuned to the needs of the child for optimal health. This parent does not need to be perfect, just “good enough.” A big part of the formula of resilience is the ability of the parents to recognize mistakes or “misattunements” and genuinely apologize to the child, and change the behavior. Parents help their child develop self-regulation by being well-regulated themselves, being able to name and be with their own emotions, and to help their babies and children do the same.
Parents gain greater understanding of their physical, emotional and spiritual inheritance by understanding environmental and health patterns in their ancestral lineage. They can also seek out professionals who understand attachment and get help to address relational patterns in their lives. Much of early childhood trauma lies in these relational patterns. The good news is that awareness can shift these patterns and that even the most stressed patterns can become a healthy, happy present.
Babies’ Needs at Every Stage
As pre- and perinatal specialists fanned out from that initial core group of practitioners who kept alive the fire originally lit by Otto Rank in 1924, regular practices in birth, baby care and child rearing came into question. Originally thinking babies to be born more as objects with no feelings, pain receptors or professionals and parents alike approached them as though they were blank tablets upon which could be written a script. These days, we know that babies have experiences in utero and can be affected chemically, hormonally and by the birthing process. Research has also shown that babies who are spoken to and played with prenatally and postpartum develop at a faster rate, with higher cognitive and physical developmental scores. Awareness of what is optimal can move us beyond or capitalize upon what our ancestors and historical experiences have set us up for.
Conscious conception: The mother is the first home for humans. Once a woman or a couple decides on pregnancy, this early in utero environment can be nurtured with nutritional changes and awareness. The best thing that parents can do prenatally is resolve their own early history. An adult’s unconscious pre-and perinatal pattern can influence how a baby is conceived, nurtured, born and raised. Couples can seek out counseling to decide on how they want to parent and what their family values will be. Prior to conception, women can cleanse, ridding their organ systems of possible toxins from plastics and other chemicals ingested without their knowledge, hidden in foods and air pollution. Whatever is going on around a mom three months before conception will influence the DNA selection for a baby. The father’s experiences, environment and stress levels also influence the DNA in the sperm. As parents move toward conception, their state of mind can influence DNA selection. It is also important for moms to take prenatal vitamins, especially folic acid and fish oils (omegas 3, 6 and 9). Moms and dads can cultivate a sense of safety and protection in their bodies, in their relationship and in their environment to help prepare for the pregnancy.
Prenatal communication and bonding: Secure attachment begins prenatally. A deep, nurturing connection between the mother, baby and father will optimally develop feelings of safety, lovability and a potential to be loving in the baby. Research has shown that reading and singing to the baby in utero begins the attachment process, as does seeing an unborn child as a participant in the pregnancy rather than simply a passenger inside the mother waiting to makes its appearance. Historically called “prenatal stimulation,” holistic practitioners have developed other tools to connect with the unborn, including interactive kicking games, massage, and the use of music and light. Parents can communicate their intentions to the unborn in a loving manner, even if it is just a thought.
Birthing practices and recovery from birth: Pre- and perinatal psychology approaches respect a family’s wishes for their birth experience, but births with little or no intervention are optimal for babies and moms. This allows the endorphins related to the birthing process— oxytocin, beta-endorphins and other natural, endogenous painkillers—to flood the mom and baby. Couples can also hire a doula (a skilled person trained to support women and families in labor) to promote an easier labor through touch, movement and positive state of mind. Research shows a decrease in cesarean section rates and other interventions for births attended by doulas, and even an increase in the satisfaction of marriage in couples who hire them. The midwifery model of care also has excellent outcomes, relying on continuous support of the mother during labor.Yet many couples often find themselves with overwhelming experiences related to birth: long labors, little support, fast labors, babies who need help through forceps or vacuum assist, anatomical anomalies in the mom or baby, placenta placement issues and more. Interventions save the lives of babies, but they are often overused. Therapeutic methods such as telling and writing the birth story, psychotherapy, and bodywork such as massage, chiropractic and craniosacral therapy help decrease post-traumatic stress that can lurk in the background should birth become overwhelming. Skinto- skin contact has amazing results for babies recovering from difficult experiences. Putting the baby on the mom right after birth has become so important that the World Health Organization is supporting a movement called the Baby Friendly Initiative, providing incentives to hospitals that leave the baby on the mom for one hour after birth without interference if there has been no intervention, and two hours afterward if there has been.
Skin-to-skin and self-attachment: The benefits of skin-to- skin practices after birth include temperature regulation, improved breastfeeding initiation rates, glucose regulation, normalized heart rate variability, increased bonding between mom and baby, and decreased crying and fear. Research has shown that preemies brought into skin-to-skin contact with their moms need less oxygen. Skin-to-skin bonding also increases oxytocin production for moms, as well as better milk production. Overall, it has a calming and healing effect on babies, helping to regulate their breathing.
Breastfeeding and baby massage: Breastfeeding exclusively and on demand until 6 months of age is also a perinatal best practice. Benefits include increased immunity, greater bonding, longer periods of sleeping by three months, and a decrease in common ailments such as ear infections, allergies and asthma. Data shows that breastfeeding lowers the risk of diabetes, obesity and certain cancers, but more research is needed to confirm these findings. In addition, parents can be taught to massage their babies, promoting bonding, decreasing stress, increasing circulation and immunity in babies, and supporting well-being in the family overall.
Mom as support, mom as healer: If a mom is not feeling supported during the pregnancy, birth and the first year of her baby’s life, it can be difficult for the family. Depression and anxiety during pregnancy and postpartum translate in the baby’s experience such that he or she may have behavioral, physical and cognitive issues later in life. Moms need to feel good after they have their babies, with circles of support to bring food and help spell the new mom and dad in the care of their new baby. They often sacrifice their well-being to take care of the family, however. If they can be gently shown that care for the mother equals care for the whole family, then the first year of life for the new family goes better.
What Adults Need: Healing Early Trauma
After studying all the possibilities in environmental, chemical, hormonal and practical influences on a developing human, there may be a feeling that we should know now how to cure these huge epidemics in mood disorders, endocrine difficulties, behavioral challenges and various illnesses, even cancer. The truth is more that we are aware of patterns that can influence our physical, mental and spiritual health. Determining the right path for reaching optimal health for each individual once grown into adulthood is tricky, and involves rebuilding the brain and the nervous system to a more optimal state. It takes time, but it can be done. Adults can often track their difficulties back to the pre- and perinatal period in a variety of ways and select from a group of practices to influence health and healing. Initially, adults for whom pre- and perinatal practices are ideally suited are those who have difficult physical, emotional and relational patterns in their lives that they can’t seem to shake. These are most often chronic states such as lifelong depression and anxiety, attention and comprehension disorders, relational difficulties such as an inability to feel safe or connected, sleeping and eating disorders, and endocrine issues. First and foremost, adults need to understand their history and acknowledge how it affects them in the present. Early difficulty does not need to be re-experienced to be healed. However, the person who has such a history needs to make sense of what happened and feel settled around it. Dysfunctional compensation patterns are part of the survival pattern for adults who had to respond in these ways when the early trauma was occurring. These compensation patterns, which have outlived their usefulness for the most part, are brought to light without shame and then transformed with compassion and the presence of an attuned therapist trained in early trauma resolution. Often working in a small, safe group is very effective. These relational traumas occurred in the context of a family, and a small, nurturing group can create the environment of a healthy family in which the repatterning can occur more easily.Current trends in trauma resolution include body-based or somatic therapies, because the roots of unhealthy patterns lie in preverbal, birth and even embryonic states. True healing of difficulty during this early period requires a somatic component, not just talking. Therapists are trained in a variety of techniques that safely lead an adult to understand and repattern early difficulty. Most often there are dynamic and profound resources within an individual that also play a huge role in a healthy outcome. Some bodyworkers call this “the health in the system” of the person with whom they are working; therapies reorient an adult toward this healthy place within.
The Future of Pre- and Perinatal Science
The pre- and perinatal paradigm for health and healing has immense importance to human development. New research supporting the vital importance of this period is published weekly. Holistic healing trends influenced by advances in these therapies include the mother- and baby-friendly initiatives, increases in breastfeeding initiation rates, increases in home birth and natural birth, increased awareness and adoption of skin-to-skin practices and policies, and the integration of therapies led by advances in neuroscience and the importance of healthy, balanced relationships in early life. The latter has been coined “interpersonal neurobiology.” The future is bright for further integration of practices around human development.
Animal and human research now supports the importance of pre- and perinatal health like never before. Here are just a few of the citations for the data-curious:
In 1958, a study involving rhesus monkeys showed that comfort (being able to cling to a cloth “mother” monkey) was favored over food (a wire monkey with a bottle). This early study influenced Sir John Bowlby, whose observations of infants became the foundation for attachment research in human development.
In 1998, a study of the health of rat pups that had been carefully attended to by the rat mothers through grooming showed that the mom rat’s soothing behavior (grooming) led to less-stressed children. When the researchers put these stressed baby rats with very attentive mothers, their internal chemistry shifted to be more like that of the resilient pups. The findings imply that attuned, attentive mothering can restore healthy homeostasis to a stressed living system.
A 2000 study of bisphenol-A, or BPA for short, a common chemical found in plastic, found that it caused epigenetic changes in agouti mice. Baby mice of mothers who were fed BPA became obese and cancerous. Furthermore, this genetic predisposition was carried over into future generations. More research showed that the predisposition could be shifted with diet. A 2012 study has now shown this chemical has an impact on behavior in mice, suggesting it creates social cue deficiencies similar to autistic diagnoses in humans.
As far back as 1998, researchers knew that early trauma was connected to difficulty later in life. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that twothirds of the 17,000 people surveyed had experienced one or more of these possibly traumatic experiences: emotional, physical or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; or growing up in a household where someone was an alcoholic, a drug user, mentally ill, suicidal, where the mother was treated violently, or where a household member had been imprisoned during the patient’s childhood. The ACE study professionals found that these early experiences contributed directly to these patterns of illness and behavior:
- alcoholism and alcohol abuse
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- fetal death
- poor health-related quality of life
- illicit drug use
- liver disease
- risk for intimate partner violence
- multiple sexual partners
- sexually transmitted diseases
- suicide attempts
- unintended pregnancies
Moreover, the researchers claimed that addiction was not a moral failure of the individual, but a method to address the emotional and often physical pain from early trauma.
Swedish researchers analyzed health records for generations starting in the 1980s, especially times of famine or plenty in traditionally agricultural societies. They determined that if there was a famine while a girl baby was in utero, the experience would affect her genes so severely that it would make her grandchildren more susceptible to diabetes and heart disease. The same research proved that the sensitive window of development for boys was during adolescence, or when sperm was being produced. Furthermore, this susceptibility leaped a generation, influencing grandchildren as opposed to children. Research collaborations regarding this Swedish data are still ongoing.
In 2009, another study examined the brains of people who committed suicide and found evidence that childhood trauma could alter the brain. Thirty-six brains were studied, including 12 each from groups that had experienced childhood trauma and committed suicide, people who had committed suicide but had not been traumatized, and those who did not commit suicide. The researchers discovered different epigenetic markings in the brains of the abused group in areas which alter the stress response, making suicide more likely. —K.W. & M.M.
Science, medicine, spiritual faiths, different therapies and the study of nature all tell us that life is about patterns. Here’s how therapies use these patterns to help us thrive:
As the seed holds the instructions for the unfolding of the plant, so too does the human genome and DNA influence human development from before conception. As the soil, the weather and the environment around a plant affect its growth, so too does the place, people and energetics of the community and the world impact the growth of a humanity.
The foundational benefit of pre-and perinatal therapy is that it will teach you about your emotional self, your thinking and beliefs, and the patterns you play out in relationships, especially those whose roots lie in your beginnings and remain in your unconscious, affecting your current life. Your ancestral patterns, prenatal period, birth and first 18 months of life experiences are encoded into your body and in your implicit memory. If powerful and unaddressed, these encoded memories often run in the background, creating filters for life’s experiences for positive and negative recapitulating patterns. These patterns can also include health issues, including cardiac, respiratory and immune system disorders. Fifty percent of the etiology of these health issues stems from prenatal experiences.
Because our first experiences are so influenced by our families, early patterns of attachment and our childhood experiences are also encoded into our biology. Therefore, small, nurturing, safe groups are part of the pre- and perinatal process. This kind of therapy—such as Myrna Martin’s Birthing Your Self process workshops—offers a safe space where patterns can be recognized and then repatterned for a healthy, more vital life. Other benefits include:
Development of a well-regulated nervous system
- Awareness of patterns and their triggers
- Tools to stay in one’s adult consciousness and orientation, and to stay in the present moment with the people currently in your life
- Tools for increasing satisfaction and relaxation
- Development of certain skills if their growth was interrupted or skipped
- Compassionate reflection of compensation patterns
- Reinforcement of healthy patterns
- Redirection of energy toward new patterns so you can thrive
Professionals who seek training in pre- and perinatal therapies can integrate information about the earliest traumas into their practices. The need for the insights of pre-and perinatal therapies extends into a broad variety of health and wellness disciplines, as patterns of difficulty show up everywhere: psychotherapy (including body focused therapies like somatic experiencing), bodywork (especially craniosacral therapy), education, birth, nursing, doula support and midwifery, medicine and more. These patterns can look like allergies, food issues, financial distress, relational difficulties, phobias, compulsive disorders, chronic pain, gender issues, depression, chronic health conditions and so much more.
If you are interested in more information about pre- and perinatal health and healing, see Myrna Martin’s website (myrnamartin.net) or the website of the Association for Preand Perinatal Psychology and Health (birthpsychology.com). This spring, Myrna is offering training in pre- and perinatal therapies for professionals in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Vancouver, British Columbia. —K.W. & M.M.
No person or family has an optimal constellation of factors for human development; however, we can change our stars. That’s the good news. Here’s what parents can do:
If a woman is considering getting pregnant she can most positively influence healthy gene selection by preparing at least three months in advance. Bruce Lipton and other cellular biologists have shown that what a woman experiences in that time can create an environment that influences which genes are selected, especially if she can avoid high stress or experiences of fear or loss. Babies conceived during wartime or famine have an entirely different experience from those conceived in times of plenty. Women can take vitamins, especially folic acid, and eat healthy foods, especially fish oils and other foods that positively influence neurological development.
Potential parents can examine how attuned they are to their own emotions and how comfortable they are expressing these emotions with the people they love and trust. Parents can practice talking about their feelings with each other to increase their own comfort levels with emotional expression. Having parents who can do this with ease and help their children express and understand their emotions is one of the best predictors of a child’s happiness and ability to selfregulate feelings.
Mates can create a loving and conscious atmosphere for conception. Most of us know that not all babies are planned, and even when planning, it can be stressful to conceive if there are patterns of infertility.
Parents can also influence their baby’s development through communication with the baby in utero. This concept can be a stretch for some parents, but research has shown that babies can experience their parents’ intentions and communication, even if they don’t understand the words. These babies exhibit enhanced visual, auditory, linguistic and motor development. In general, they sleep better and are more alert, confident and content than infants who did not receive this level of communication in utero. Births in families where there is prenatal communication tend to have less intervention, and the babies are bigger and stronger. These families also have more intense bonding and greater coherence. Parents can talk, read, play games through touch, and sing to their unborn.
Stress plays an important role in human development. Truly overwhelming or toxic stress, whether caused by war, domestic violence, a huge workload at the office, or other adverse circumstances, can program a baby’s nervous system so he or she is hard to settle, negatively affecting sleep, communication, eating and even motor and cognitive development. Not all stress is bad, however. Occasional moderate stress can spur humans to be more resilient. But women need to determine how much is too much for them, and get support they need. Therapies such as massage and other forms of bodywork, meditation and relaxation techniques are important resources here, as are exercise, walks in nature, and anything that helps a mom feel better and more in charge of her environment.
Parents, mothers in particular, can look at their own history and determine how they were parented. Research has shown that we parent our own children in the same manner in which we were raised, with up to 85 percent accuracy. The best way to prepare is to make sense of your history and address problems in the presence of a qualified counselor. It is not what happened to us as children that matters, but how we have come to terms with it.
Pregnant moms and their mates can seek out good prenatal care and select minimal intervention during birth. In addition, birth and postpartum doulas can really help the new family get off to the best possible start. Research has shown that the presence of a doula can decrease the need for interventions and even increase the satisfaction of a couple’s relationship.
If there has been a difficult birth or separation between mom and baby, then parents can use skin-to-skin practices and therapies to help repair and support bonding. This is effective even if the baby was adopted. Breastfeeding is also a best practice for optimal human development, but if that is not well established, parents can still support their children with health practices and play.
Research now shows that the first 18 months of life are when significant nerve pathways are formed. The brain develops rapidly until age 3, when unused and unstimulated neurons will be pruned. Since a baby’s nervous system goes 10 times slower than an adult’s, parents and caregivers can slow down and provide appropriate enriching experiences through touch, music, rhythm and communication. Parents can talk with their babies. A connected, attuned experience is vital for all aspects of a baby’s development.
Moms and caregivers need to be encouraged to make themselves a priority. Babies will entrain off of what a mom is feeling. If she is exhausted, anxious, depressed or nutritionally drained, her baby will feel it. There is truth to the saying “If mama’s not happy, no one’s happy.” If the mother needs to go back to work, families can select educated and resilient care providers and help for the family to make the transition. —K.W. & M.M.
This article was originally published in the magazine: Pathways to Family Wellness, issue 36.