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How Babies Adapt to Their Mother’s Physiological State

The classic image at New Year’s where old Father Time represents the year just ended while the bannered New Year’s baby emerges onstage, heralds the iconic star of a conference I attended in San Diego recently. Sponsored by the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) the international congress addressed the scientific and psycho-social discoveries centered on “the conscious baby.”

Founded in 1983 by Canadian psychiatrist Thomas R. Verny MD, and David Chamberlain PhD, the APPPAH started as a small group of people who shared an interest in the sensitivity and consciousness of babies.

Membership chair and parental educator Barbara Decker explains, “Their premise is that babies are having experiences in the womb-welcoming or not being welcomed, experiencing fear or love which are imprinting the baby in the womb.”

Members agree that prenatal experiences in utero as well as labor, delivery and breastfeeding are formative for babies and parents while establishing patterns of sociability that extend throughout life.

True to their mission of educating people, researchers present scientific discoveries to prove that babies are conscious and sentient beings. The evidence shows that what a baby experiences during its conception, pregnancy and birth creates lifelong consequences.

Dr. Verny’s keynote ushered in the event detailing the advances in neuroscience and its relevance to pre- and perinatal psychology. As Decker explained, “Neuroscience is proving that chronic stress hormones flowing through the mother are effecting architectural changes in the baby’s brains preparing the baby for a life of fear and protection rather than love and compassion. Conception and the next nine months through birth, give the basis for a healthy emotional intelligence and self-esteem or a life of fear and need to protect.”

Developmental researcher Katharine Monk, PhD, from Columbia University presented important discoveries on what she calls “the mother-baby dyad during pregnancy.” Because of their brain development, the fetus perceives their mother’s life and is affected by it. Monk details how, by mid-pregnancy most of the 80-90 billion neurons we adults possess are already produced. Neuronal migration (when neurons are shifting into their locations) peaks in mid-pregnancy, and 40,000 new synapses are formed every second in the late 3rd trimester.

By the 3rd trimester the fetus’ motor, visual, auditory, frontal and temporal networks are operational. After birth, babies prefer their mother’s breastmilk to another mother’s because the smell of the amniotic fluid is similar to their mother’s milk. Babies prefer their mother’s voice to another women’s since after nine months together the baby has grown used to their own mother’s prosodic tones.

Monk highlights that, though the fetus is hidden, it is yet receptive to maternal transmissions and that this time represents a prime opportunity for intervention. Neuroplasticity refers to how influences shape the brain throughout development. Monk cites research showing that brains are shaped differently based on the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy. The mother communicates to her fetus, through cortisol crossing the placenta, to be prepared for a dangerous world. The match between the baby and its environment considers whether the parents and the child are a good fit. If a reactive baby has a reactive mother they will both be uncomfortable.

An intervention Monk has developed starts in pregnancy and targets three areas. These include, optimizing the baby’s regulation which considers that a mother wants what’s best for her baby, so she learns tools that will help her baby sleep. Mindfulness is another focal point. This salubrious practice is introduced to teach the mother skills to regulate her own subjective and physiological state. And finally, psychological and developmental education is included so the new mom learns what to expect from her baby.

Monk’s intervention which she calls PREPP (Practical Resources for Effective Postpartum Parenting) begins with visits during pregnancy, after birth and during the postpartum period. Participating mom’s have zero attrition and staying the course reduces the incidence of postpartum depression by 50%. This robust protocol should be implemented everywhere. Its success lies in the fact that it removes the stigma of seeking mental health treatment for postpartum depression and instead recognizes the mother and child as a dyad: the intervention is for both of them.

The importance of the developing brain was highlighted by another speaker who is an expert in moral development.

Psychologist Darcia Narvaez, PhD from Notre Dame University presented her research “The Evolved Nest: What Children Need to Thrive.” Narvaez considers the first 18 months of life as a crucial time for brain development denoting the need for an enriched protective environment which she calls the evolved developmental niche aka “the nest.”

Benefits of the nest include self-regulation, like how the child deals with unexpected events and adjusts to stress. The child evolving from the protective nest evokes an agile intelligence about getting along in the world and with the world.

Components of the nest include a soothing birth experience; breastfeeding; responsiveness to baby’s needs; affection; outdoor play – to develop the implicit right brain; and adult caregivers providing respite and training for new parents. According to Narvaez, the context is (based on our brain development at birth) that we should be in the womb for another 18 months. When the nest is not provided the baby suffers.

A soothing birth experience includes connecting mom and baby with skin to skin contact immediately after birth to encourage breastfeeding (milk defines us as mammals i.e., possessing mammary glands). Human milk is thin which means babies are meant to digest it frequently. Mother’s milk is live food and can sense through the baby’s saliva whether the baby has a virus and the milk makes the antibody for the virus. If baby weighs too little mothers milk detects it and makes more fat.

Summing up, Narvaez advises us to restore tenderness to all relationships with young children and adolescents. The nest provides that tenderness and includes: the soothing birth, breastfeeding on request for infants, responsiveness (don’t let babies cry themselves to sleep as it creates cortisol that melts their neurons), affection (no spanking or coercion), free play outside, and friendly adult caregivers fostering a positive climate so the child feels like they are loved. When the niche is provided optimal development will result.

Drs. Verny’s, Chamberlain’s, Monk’s, and Narvaez’ work does justice to the APPPAH and represents the caliber of scholar contributing to the conversation. The association offers many educational opportunities including an online pre and perinatal psychology educator course as well as regional and international congresses. A visit to their website will introduce you to their archival multi-media resources.

Nancy Lynn Ivey, MA is a freelance writer interested in holistic health, spirituality and wellness. She teaches yoga at California State University Bakersfield and is an Upledger certified craniosacral therapist. She teaches and practices from her home-based studio Yogaya in the hills above the Kern River Valley in central California. To learn more about her work, visit her website at http://www.nancyivey.com or http://www.ramblingnan.com for contact information.

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