Time in the womb – an unique opportunity for connecting

(This article is also available in an audio format)

By Tina Otte – registered nurse and midwife, internationally certified childbirth educator 

Until recently, the prevailing scientific habit has been to treat the earliest period of human development – from conception to birth, as an insensitive, unconscious, period of physical growth.

The belief which has blocked understanding is that no intelligence is possible and no learning or memory can occur until after birth, when the construction of the brain is more advanced. If this were the case, it would follow that unborn babies cannot care about anything, know anything, or learn anything.

Newborn babies have been (and still are) getting a raw deal. Belief still exists that baby brains are not yet grown and therefore not much use at birth. In spite of abundant new research and knowledge about infant senses, we find that obstetricians, paediatricians and other professionals remain unconvinced. Birth practices today remain largely the same: bright lights, cold rooms, procedures that are painful for the baby, procedures that are invasive and uncomfortable and all too often professionals blunder through the birth process violating a baby’s senses, believing that they don’t exist. Parents today are in danger of blundering through pregnancy, unaware that the baby’s senses are already working.

Now the nine months of gestation are the focus of intense interest and excitement, the subject of an exploding number of journal articles, books and conferences. The foetus is no longer considered as an inert being “the larval stage of human development, but an active and dynamic creature, responding and even adapting to conditions inside and outside its mother’s body as it readies itself for the particular world it will enter”.

The pregnant mother is not just a passive incubator – but a powerful and often positive influence on her child before it is born.

Pregnancy is not just the nine month wait for the life event of birth, but a crucial period unto itself – “a staging period for wellbeing and disease in later life.”

The false assumption that prenates cannot learn is still given credence in academic circles, permeates the fundamental assumptions of developmental psychology, obstetrics and neonatology, still casts a shadow over nursing, midwifery, and childbirth education, and still confuses each new generation of pregnant parents.

Potentially, babies have a lot to tell us and they are busy communicating with the psychologists, obstetricians, neonatologists, nurses, midwives, childbirth educators, and parents who will listen to them. Babies have been demonstrating awareness, vulnerability to influence, and intelligence.

For over two decades we have had proof that full-term newborns, prematurely born babies and even babies in utero are capable of classical conditioning and habituation. More recently, with refinements in both learning theory and experimental methodology, newborns have demonstrated tactile, auditory, and olfactory learning, imitation learning, and verbal learning.

Recognition learning of musical passages, stories, voices, native language sounds and even children’s rhymes has been shown at birth and during intra-uterine life. The latest in the series of important experiments by Anthony DeCasper and colleagues, involved French mothers who repeated a child’s rhyme three times a day from week 33 to 37 gestational age. After four weeks of daily rhymes, babies recognized the rhyme they had heard but showed no recognition of a different rhyme.

An additional reason for parents to begin active parenting at conception is the discovery that babies in the womb are also developing more rapidly than previously thought possible. From the second month of pregnancy, experiments and observations reveal an active prenate with a rapidly developing sensory system permitting exquisite sensitivity and responsiveness. Long before the development of advanced brain structures, prenates are seen interacting with each other and learning from experience. They seem especially interested in the larger environment provided by mother and father, and react to individual voices, stories, music, and even simple interaction games with parents. The quality of the uterine environment is determined principally by parents.

A parent can influence the environment of their unborn child significantly by becoming aware of and minimizing negative influences, and by adding quantity and quality stimulation, which will develop the child’s intellectual levels, vocal and musical language skills, sensory sensitivity, as well as many other benefits that will affect the life of that child. Learning takes place in the months before birth, whether we are consciously involved in the process or not. Learning had already started a few weeks after conception when baby responded to touch and later to smell and taste and even later to sound and (mostly after birth), to seeing. What is remarkable is that your baby’s ability to read and write and reason six and a half years later when he enters grade one is substantially developed from conception to 14 months old!

The womb is a child’s first classroom, the pelvis his first cradle!! He drifts, kicks and paddles inside the womb, sucking up nutrition through his umbilical straw and then gathering more groceries from the placenta via his mother’s blood stream. He inhales and exhales the warm, salty amniotic fluid that he floats in, gulping it down, tasting and smelling it. With gradually opening eyes and curled hands, he investigates the limits of his watery, twilight world. He listens to muffled conversations from the outer world and hears the musical counterpoint of his mother’s heart, lungs, stomach and intestines. He knows his mother in every way, months before he meets her face to face. Indeed the unborn child is an active, sensitive and responsive human being long before his birth, and parents can play a vital role in providing an optimal sensory environment for him, before he is born.

The opportunities for parents to form a relationship with the baby in the womb are significant and remarkable. This contrasts sharply with the previous view that prenates did not have the capacity to interact, remember, learn, or put meaning to their experiences. Only a decade ago, doctors typically told pregnant mothers and fathers that talking to a baby in the womb was useless and unrealistic. Now there is mounting evidence for memory and learning in utero and for communication before the stage of language. These abilities of unborn babies underlie the successes reported in a series of scientific experiments with prenatal stimulation and bonding.

“When we hold our babies for the first time, we imagine them clean and new, unmarked by life, when in fact they have already been shaped by the world, and by us. It’s a koan of parenthood, one worthy of long contemplation: We are meeting someone we know well – for the very first time.”- Annie Murphy Paul from her book ORIGINS 3

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