Myrna Martin and Kate White Talk About Pre and Perinatal Psychology
It has been nearly a century since pre and perinatal psychology was introduced by Otto Rank, a student and colleague of Sigmond 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 the psyche of the person being born in such a way that it would affect them the rest of their lives. While first warmly received by Freud, it was rejected and the relationship between teacher and student was forever affected.
Since then, this pattern of considering that babies have experiences that have lifelong implications has taken similar course in the world. A small cohort of practitioners took on the belief that yes, these 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, a confluence of neuroscience, cellular biology, trauma resolution therapies, and human development are indeed supporting the fact that early experiences prenatally, during birth and in the first year of life do indeed have lifelong implications for health and happiness. These experiences can affect the child in both positive and difficult ways, depending on what happens. Healing is possible, no matter what difficulties may 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 1960’s 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 multi-generational implications. Then the 1990’s were considered The Decade of the Brain, and many government dollars supported scientific research into embryology, neurology and related fields, especially the human genome project. It was thought that humans had over 100,000 genes that could be mapped and therefore disease and health could be easily tracked and hopefully manipulated for the greater good. However only 25,000 genes were discovered and research turned to looking at how the environment influenced gene expression. This field of study is called “epigentics,” or how the environment and genetics interact. The nature/nurture fight was forever settled and the era of the “epigenome” was born.
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 thoughts, feelings and experiences that a person has will influence how the genes we are born with will function. In addition, chemicals in the environment around a human will influence how the genes express themselves. Experiences that grandparents have will influence their grandchildren’s life, as these epigenetic changes can be multigenerational. Geneticists are now tracking a variety of diseases through the generations. Professionals can also track how experiences influence the baby in utero, especially high levels of stress.
This is what parents need to know: that how they are with their baby starting preconception 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 find happiness in the world. Every parent wants the best for their child.
Those of us supporting human development can outline best practices that parents can consider, and also, 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. Here is a list of the points:
- Ancestral lineage- people are securely attached and there is no disease (rare)
- Dad and Mom “conscious”, prepare 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, mild to moderate stress.
- Good and regular prenatal care
- Birth is optimal, natural, no interruption, not too short, not too long
- Baby is not separated, has lots of skin to skin, “self attaches;” there is no difficulty breastfeeding
- Neonatal period is relaxed and uneventful, completely breastfed until at least 6 months.
No person or family has an optimal constellation of factors for human development, however, we can change our stars. That is the good news. Here is 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 show that what a woman experiences then 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 difference experience from those conceived in time of plenty. Women can take vitamins esp. 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 people they love and trust. Parents can begin to practice talking about their feelings with each others more to increase their own comfort levels with emotional expression. Parents who can do this with ease and help their children express and understand their emotions is one of the best predictors of children’s happiness and ability to self regulate 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, are more alert, confident, and content than infants who were not who did not receive this level of communcation in utero. Births in the families where there is prenatal communication are shown 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. If it is truly overwhelming or toxic stress, like during war, domestic violence, a huge workload at the office, or adverse circumstances the mother feels she has no control over, then it can program the baby’s nervous system so he or she is hard to settle, negatively affecting sleep, communication, eating and even motor and cognitive development. However, occasional moderate stress can support humans to be more resilient. Not all stress is bad! 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 is exercise, walks in nature or 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 that we parent our own children in the same manner in which we raised with up to 85% 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, 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 or women who can help with birth and the newborn 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 in a human lays down the significant nerve pathways. The brain develops rapidly until age three when neurons not being used or stimulated will be pruned. Since a baby’s nervous system goes 10 times slower than an adults, parents and caregivers can slow down and provide appropriate enriching experiences through touch, music, rhythm and communication. Parents can talk with their babies. The connecting, attuned experience is vital for all aspects of the babies 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, lonely, or nutritionally drained than her baby will feel it. There is truth to the saying “if mama’s not happy, no one’s happy.” If mom needs to go back to work, families can select educated and resilient care providers and help for the family to make the transition.
One of our greatest spiritual challenges is living in the real world, and at every turn on the life road, parents can feel blamed. Every parent wants the best for their child. Take time for yourself and your baby. Use your resources. Connect with other families and find a balance between function and overwhelm. Then get help if you need it. We need a cultural shift around moms and babies, but until then, we can chart our course with these pre and perinatal points in mind to support families. Parts two and three will further layout how we help families and adults who have had difficulty during the pre and perinatal period.