“Where do we first experience the nascent emotions of love, rejection, anxiety and joy? In the first school we ever attend — in our mother’s womb.” (Verny, 2002, p. 53)
I have often imagined life in the womb as peaceful, calm and warm. I think of it as a place of protection and safety. I hope that for most babies, their experience in the womb is just like that. But some of what I have been reading lately suggests that, for some babies, the womb may not be such a comfortable place. It may be up to us — when we are pregnant, our babies feel what we feel.
Since I first came up with the idea for this blog, I have been collecting pregnancy and childbirth books. I find them at garage sales, used bookstores and online. I have been amazed at how many there are, each with it’s own unique perspective or focus. Many books talk about the emotions that a pregnant mother might feel. They bring up concerns such as fears about changes in our bodies (Curtis & Schuler, 2004), fears about birth (Cappacchione & Bardsley, 1994) and the importance of support for coping with anxiety (England & Horowitz, 1998). These books describe mom’s and sometimes dad’s emotional experiences during pregnancy, but the experience of the baby is conspicuously absent. So far, I have found only one author, Thomas Verny, who discusses the emotional world of our babies in the womb in depth.
It may be hard to imagine that babies experience emotions while still in the womb. After all, they can’t describe their feelings to us. Historically, many have denied the emotional world of the baby in the womb (Verny, 2002). It is as if they are saying, “we can’t observe it, so it doesn’t exist.”
Others do not have trouble imagining that babies have feelings even before birth and say that we actually can observe them (e.g., Verny, 1981). During times when pregnant moms feel anxiety, they report that their babies move around more frequently. Ultrasound technicians have watched expressions on faces of developing fetuses as early as four months and can see them cry like infants (Verny, 2002)
At about six weeks prenatally, scientists have observed a ridge that forms the basis of the amygdala, the structure in the human brain that produces emotions such as fear (Joseph, 2000). It is not certain exactly when babies may start to experience fear, but it appears that a fetus has the basic equipment to experience emotions from an early stage in development. What a baby at this stage does not likely have, however, is the ability that adults have to cope with emotions. As adults, we may have learned to push emotions aside or get support from friends when we feel scared. A baby does not have those skills. Our baby may be feeling everything. But what might that be?
A body of evidence shows that the chemicals associated with anxiety and fear, such as the hormone cortisol, pass from the mother to her developing baby through her placenta (e.g., Charil et al, 2010; Gerhardt, 2004; Verny, 2002; Weinstock, 2005). A mother’s moods and emotions take the form of molecules (e.g., Pert, 1997). These “emotion” molecules then pass into the developing child just as proteins, vitamins or alcohol will. Just as he shares his mother’s body, a developing infant shares his mother’s emotions.
Sharing emotions appears to have some serious consequences for some babies. Maternal stress has been associated with problems in brain development (Charil et al, 2010) and temperament in infants (Weinstock, 2005). Mothers who have emotional difficulties are more likely to give birth to babies with sleep problems, digestive problems, and irritability. Moms who experience chronic stress during pregnancy are more likely to birth infants who cry inconsolably (Kitzinger, 1989). Depressed mothers often give birth to depressed babies . Depression, anxiety and stress can be passed on non-genetically, in the womb (Gerhardt, 2004).
The evidence about babies’ emotions in the womb certainly puts a lot of pressure on pregnant moms. Not only are we adjusting to the idea of becoming a parent, adding a sibling, negotiating maternity leave, and addressing fears about childbirth, we now have the expectation to monitor our emotions so that our children will be born psychologically healthy. It is impossible to have a stress-free pregnancy; it is only when stress is chronic and persistent that parents should be concerned (Verny, 1981). Pregnancy also provides an opportunity to address our parenting fears and expectations before our baby is born.
The good news is, moms with lower stress or who manage stress well are more likely to birth psychologically healthy babies. If we can moderate stress and facilitate a supportive environment, our developing infant’s resources can be directed toward growth, rather than protection and defense. In one study, researchers showed that babies of mothers with low stress had heart rates that went up when stimlated, then returned to normal quickly (Wadhwa, 1998 as cited in Verny, 2002). Babies of calm mothers seem to learn how to cope with stress in a healthy way. There is also hope for mothers who, through no fault of their own, experience chronic stress in pregnancy. Social support has been shown to mediate the effects of stress on the developing child (Verny, 2002)
One of the most valuable lessons my therapist taught me when I saw her during my pregnancy, was how to establish a boundary between my emotions and my baby. When we were about to work on something from my past, she encouraged me to communicate intuitively with my baby, letting her know that she did not need to be concerned about my emotions; I was taking care of them. I often repeated this communication when I became anxious or worried during pregnancy. I let my baby know that I would care for her and keep her safe. I let her know that she was doing exactly what she needed to do — grow, sleep and take in nourishment.
Here are some suggestions for creating a womb environment that promotes your baby’s emotional health.
1.) Use Intuitive communication — many pregnant moms experience intuitions about their babies. I’ve heard mom’s say things like, “he doesn’t like it if I eat spicy foods.” Intuitive communication can be a first step in forming a relationship with your baby that is based on communication and understanding (Verny, 2002). If you get an intuition about your baby’s emotions, you can start responding to them even before you see his face.
2. ) Form A Partnership with Your Baby — you and your baby are sharing a body and emotions. Why not face challenges and joys of pregnancy and childbirth as partners? This can also lay the groundwork for a parent-child relationship based on cooperation and understanding (Capacchione & Bardsley, 1994).
3.) Clear the Field — emotions from past hurts, relationship problems, past pregnancy loss, or resentments toward your own parents can leave unwanted and unresolved emotions that you may pass on to your baby (Verny, 2002). Pregnancy can be a perfect time to clear out these old wounds. Consider psychotherapy or other healing modalities to clear your emotional field during pregnancy.
4.) Garner Support — pregnancy can be a stressful time, but social support is one of the proven ways to cope with the stress. Whether you choose to chat with a friend, join a support group, or reconnect with family, support could be crucial to your baby’s emotional well-being.
5.) Cultivate Calm — you will not eliminate stress from your life, but taking time out of your day for a calming activity will help both you and your baby learn that stress need not persist eternally. Consider taking a prenatal yoga class or starting a daily meditation practice, particularly one that encourages connection and partnership with your baby.
6.) Create a Boundary — your baby does not have to feel everything you feel. Children have a tendency to take responsibility for their parent’s feelings. Let your baby know that even though you have worries, you are the parent and you are taking care of them. Let him know that he is doing exactly what he needs to do, growing into the person you are looking forward to see very soon.
If you have further questions or would like to schedule a psychotherapy appointment with Dr. Nancy, contact her at 303-456-2889, ext. 2 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charil, A., Laplante, D.P., Vaillancourt, C., and King, S. (2010). Prenatal stress and brain development. Brain Research Reviews. Oct 5;65(1):56-79.
Curtis, G.B., and Schuler, J. (2004). Your Pregnancy Week by Week. , 5th Ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Cappachione, L. and Bardsley, S. (1994.) Creating a Joyful Birth Experience: Developing a Partnership with Your Unborn Child for Healthy Pregnancy, Labor, and Early Parenting. New York: Simon and Schuster.
England, P. and Horowitz, R. (1998). Birthing from Within: An Extra-Ordinary Guide to Childbirth Preparation. Albequerque, NM: Partera Press.
Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. London and New York: Routledge.
Joseph, R. (2000). Amygdala. In Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience. New York: Academic Press.
Kitzinger, S. (1989). The Crying Baby. London: Penguin Books.
Pert, C. (1997). Molecules of Emotion. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Verny, T., and Kelly, J. (1981). The Secret Life of the Unborn Child: How You Can Prepare Your Unborn Baby for a Happy, Healthy Life. New York: Dell.
Verny, T.R., and Weintraub, P. (2002). Pre-parenting: Nurturing Your Child from Conception. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Weinstock, M. (2005). The potential influence of maternal stress hormones on development and mental health of the offspring. Brain Behavior and Immunity. Jul;19(4):296-308.