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Lifelong Lessons from the Womb

Written by Marcy Axness, PhD   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00
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Gone are the days when we could consider pregnancy a nine-month “grace period” before the job of parenting began. Mounting research tells us that everything we do— beginning, even, before conception—shapes our children in critical, life-altering ways.

Scientists are finding that our health throughout life is greatly determined by the prenatal circumstances in which we develop. This fetal “programming” is different from what happens in conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome, where the toxic effects of the womb environment are noticeable at birth, or early in life. New findings in fetal development indicate that certain conditions may not show up until as late as an individual’s forties or fifties! For example, we now know there are strong links between low birth weight and heart disease, poor gestational nutrition and diabetes, and links between high birth weight and breast cancer in women.

The practical effect of this research doesn’t mean pregnant mothers should panic. Rather, they should be vigilant about following the nutritional guidelines provided by their doctors or midwives, such as getting enough folic acid (beginning before conception), eating enough of the proper foods during pregnancy, and gaining the recommended amount of weight.

Minds Shaped in the Womb

There is far more to an individual than his or her physical body, and scientists now recognize that it is during fetal development that the personality begins to form. This supports findings from the field of prenatal and perinatal psychology, which have long suggested that circumstances surrounding conception, pregnancy, labor, birth and the postpartum period have profound influences on lifelong emotional health and well-being. Countless fascinating case histories in the scientific literature support the connection between experiences in utero and certain compulsions, repetitive behaviors, fears and fascinations in later life.

Current research reveals that circumstances surrounding conception can affect the developing child. For example, a 1993 cross-cultural study found that infants whose conceptions had been planned showed higher levels of cognitive capacity and attachment to their mothers at three months of age than did unplanned infants whose mothers received the same level of prenatal care.

The area of brain development is receiving increased attention from the scientific community. Scientists now know that a pregnant woman’s moods have a significant impact upon her baby’s brain development in the womb. Data from rigorous studies indicate that a pregnant mother’s chronic stress has long-term negative effects upon the developing brain of her fetus, including an increased predisposition to depression and a lower tolerance for stress later in life.

While we’re in the womb, our brains seemingly develop in direct response to our mother’s experience of the world. If a mother is plagued by anxiety or stress during her pregnancy, the “message” communicated to her baby (via stress hormones) is that they are in an unsafe environment—regardless of whether or not such information is factual. The baby’s brain will actually mutate, or adapt, to prepare for the unsafe environment into which it expects to arrive. Chronic stress in pregnancy tends to sculpt a brain suited to survive in dangerous environments: quick to react, with reduced impulse control and a dampened capacity to remain calm and content. Chronic joy, by contrast, allows for the optimal development of each organ, the brain in particular—predisposing the baby to greater health and serenity. Such traits constitute the foundations of lifelong personality.