The old Freudians believe that personality does not develop until ages 2-3 has now been displaced by decades of research in the field of pre-natal psychology. We have found that an unborn child is an aware, reacting human being and leads an active emotional life. Medical research also has shown that maternal diet, drinking, smoking and drugs have a direct affect on the developing fetus. For example, we now know that when a pregnant woman smokes a cigarette it drops the oxygen content in the maternal blood passing through the placenta to the neo-nate. Using a fetal heart monitor, Dr. Michael Liberman observed that each time the mother even thought about having a cigarette, the unborn child became emotionally agitated (heart rate spike) proving that there is a biochemical and neuro-hormonal dialogue between the mother and the fetus.
Dr. Henry Truby at the University of Miami found that by the sixth month the fetus could hear and move in rhythm to its mother’s voice. It will respond favorably to the mother’s happy singing or with anxiety and stress with mom’s yelling and anger. Sonograms taken while parents yell at each other show the baby’s entire body flinching in agitation. They also often cover their ears.
A new study suggests that short-term memory may be present in the fetus at 30 weeks of age. They found that the young neo-nate had a memory of ten minutes duration. By 34 weeks they were able to store information and retrieve it four weeks later (Journal of Child Development, 2009).
Research demonstrates that soon after conception a level of consciousness exists in the embryo. As the fetus develops, it’s subconscious mind stores information to prepare it for the environment in which it will be born (safe of scary) and formulates its set point for stress (Perry). In his ground breaking book, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, Thomas Verny, M.D., reports that what a child feels and perceives begins shaping his attitudes and expectations about himself and the world. Whether he perceives himself as happy or sad, wanted or unwanted, and the world as secure or anxiety provoking depends, in part, on the messages he gets about himself and the environment in the womb.
Researchers at the University of Turin and the University of Panama in Italy used ultra soundography to demonstrate that social interaction exists between twins in the womb as early as the 14th week of gestation. By the 18th week they spent more time in planned contact with their sibling than themselves. The results suggest that twin fetuses are aware of their counterparts in the womb, prefer to interact with them, and respond to them in a special way.
An unborn child can sense and react to emotions such as love and rejection but also to more complex emotions such as ambivalence and ambiguity. The mother’s thoughts about the child and/or pregnancy – love or rejection or disinterest – directly affect the child’s subsequent sense of self, security, and esteem. Studies on pregnant schizophrenic and psychotic women show the devastating effects of emotional neglect in-utero. Their illness made meaningful communication difficult. At birth, these infants tended to have more physical and emotional problems.
The children of accepting mothers who looked forward to having a baby were much more physically and emotionally healthy at birth and afterword than the offspring of rejecting moms (Lukesch, 1975). Another study showed that moms with a negative attitude or high levels of stress during pregnancy had the highest rates of premature, low weight, and emotionally disturbed infants. Ambivalent mothers had babies with an unusually high number of behavioral and gastrointestinal problems. Dr. Lukesch rates the quality of a woman’s relationship with her spouse second only to her attitude toward being a mother in determining infant outcome. Support of the spouse also was a significant factor in how well the pregnancy and delivery went.
In a study of over 1,300 children and families it was found that women in stormy marriages ran a 237% greater risk of bearing a psychologically or physically damaged child in comparison to women in secure, nurturing relationships. Unhappy marriages produce infants who were five times more fearful and jumpy. At ages four and five, they were undersized, timid and emotionally dependent. Long-term emotional distress also leads to the release of stress hormones into the fetus. Some believe this contributes to a damaged fight-or-flight stress response. How the child experiences the womb, friendly or hostile, can create life long personality and character predispositions. We can imagine the effects of poverty, domestic violence, alcohol/drug abuse, and emotional neglect on the developing fetus and his future. Investing in prevention programs to support high-risk pregnant women has proven to be a much more effective and economical way to deal with the enormous long-term consequences associated with these problems.
It’s never too soon to bond with your unborn child. At approximately 20 weeks the baby can start to feel your touch. Caressing and massaging your tummy and responding to his kicks and nudges is the start of a positive two-way communication. It also facilitates blood flow and calms your body (Brion). The fetus’s hearing is developing all the time. At approximately 23 weeks they can hear the mother’s heartbeat and by the end of 25 weeks they can distinguish sounds from outside the womb. They are always listening and at six months they can recognize specific voices. Speaking, reading or singing to the fetus provides a calming effect and promotes voice recognition. Mindfulness practices are also helpful to reduce the mother’s and baby’s anxiety and helps to facilitate connection and attunement (Hartley, 2015).
This blog item was written by Michael Orlans who runs Evergreen Psychotherapy Center, along with Dr. Terry Levy. They are known together as the Attachment Experts who specialize in attachment treatment for attachment disorder and trauma.