Womb: The First School

The Womb: A Child’s First School

By Thomas R. Verny with Pamela Weintraub 

Issue 132, September/October 2005

pregnant couple on couchFrom Tomorrow’s Baby by Thomas R. Verny, MD, with Pamela Weintraub. Copyright 2002 by Thomas R. Verny and Pamela Weintraub. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.

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. Naturally, the student brings into this situation certain genetic endowments: intelligence, talents, and preferences. However, the teacher’s personality exerts a powerful influence on the result. Is she interested, patient, and knowledgeable? Does she spend time with the student? Does she like him, love him? Does she enjoy teaching? Is she happy, sad, or distracted? Is the classroom quiet or noisy, too hot or too cold, a place of calm and tranquility or a cauldron of stress?

Numerous lines of evidence and hundreds of research studies have convinced me that it makes a difference whether we are conceived in love or in hate, anxiety or violence. It makes a difference whether the mother desires to be pregnant and wants to have a child or whether that child is unwanted. It makes a difference whether or not the mother feels supported by family and friends, is free of addictions, lives in a stable, stress-free environment, and receives good prenatal care.

All these things matter enormously, not so much by themselves but as part of the ongoing education of the unborn child.

Nurturers and Managers
Having a baby is, for most people, an act of faith. It represents a belief in a better tomorrow, not just for themselves but for the world. But unless we actively improve our understanding and treatment of the unborn baby and the young child, that faith will go unrewarded because we may blindly pass on to our children the neurotic parenting we ourselves may have received. One key to parenting is flexibility. Those who can adapt to their baby’s wants and needs will be nurturing and responsive. Those who cannot change their lives to accommodate the child—who expect the baby to adapt to them instead of the other way around—may be too rigid and uninvolved to parent well.

These days that task is harder than ever, given the frequent necessity for both parents in a family to work. As parents who work, we delegate responsibilities—including the care of our children and our homes. To keep our lives afloat, to juggle all the elements, we tend to become as managerial in our private lives as we are in our jobs.

It is during pregnancy that parents—those who work as well as those who don’t—must create a balance for living. I urge both partners to examine their commitments and to create a plan for increasing their time away from work so they can spend more time at home with the baby.

Cleaning Out the Cobwebs
Will a child’s psychological and physical development be affected by the emotional makeup of the parents? To those in touch with modern research (not to mention personal history), the question seems rhetorical, the answer as clear as day. Still, it bears repeating: Findings in the peer-reviewed literature over the course of decades establish, beyond any doubt, that parents have overwhelming influence on the mental and physical attributes of the children they raise.

Given that fact, it is the responsibility of every expectant parent to clean out the cobwebs of the psyche by airing differences with partners and resolving inner conflicts before the new baby arrives. This “psychic cleansing” has been used to therapeutic advantage by Candace Fields Whitridge, a certified nurse-midwife who cofounded the Mountain Clinic, an innovative women’s health center in the rural mountains of Trinity County, California. “With our growing knowledge of the consciousness of the unborn child, we have an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to improve the way we deliver prenatal care and support women and families at birth,” she says. “To enhance the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of birth, we need to expand our attitudes and the art of our care, as well as fine-tune our technical and intuitive skills.”

One of the most powerful techniques for improving the outcome of delivery, Whitridge found, was a formal “cobweb-cleaning session” at 36 weeks gestation with the woman and her mate, or the person who would be providing primary support to her at the birth:

“This came about as the result of an auspicious occurrence in my examination room one day. A very loving couple were nearing their delivery date. They had been married many years before deciding to have a child and were excited about being parents. However, the husband was acting in a peculiar manner that day and in the course of the conversation I jokingly asked him, ‘Is there anything Joan might do in labor that would bother you?’ He didn’t answer for a minute and then in a soft but serious voice said, —Yes . . . if she was a wimp.’

“His wife looked dumbstruck. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘What does the word wimp mean to you?’ Slowly but steadily he replied, ‘I don’t think that I have ever really told my wife how much I depend on her. She is the pillar in our family, and over the years I have come to rely on her constant strength. I have been talking to my male friends, and they have told me how women change in labor, how vulnerable they are and how heavily they lean on the man.’ He paused. ‘I am afraid that I will not measure up when the clutch is on, that I will fail my wife when she needs me most.’

“His wife’s eyes never left his face as he painfully confessed his concerns. She smiled and gently replied, ‘I had no idea you valued those traits in me to such an extent. How wonderful to hear that. I like being strong and dependable. But I have been talking to my friends. They have said, “Joan, labor is a primal experience. It’s powerful, intense, and it is best to just surrender to the forces and go where it takes you.” The idea of that is right somehow, and it excites me.’

“Let’s make a deal. I am not afraid, and I want to fully experience this. The only thing I will need from you is your presence, your love, and just don’t freak out.’ They laughed and shook on it.

“Her birth was incredible. For a woman who was normally always in charge, she just let go. Her labor was earthy, noisy, wild, sensual, and short. Her husband watched her in frank adoration and kept his end of the deal. In addition to receiving a beautiful daughter, this birth dramatically changed each of their lives and their relationship forever.

“Had these concerns not come up and been worked through during pregnancy, this birth could have gone quite differently. A probable scenario: she would have started carrying on, moaning and wailing and throwing herself all over the room (which she in fact did). He would have freaked out: ‘?Somebody do something. There’s something clearly wrong. She never acts this way.’ She would have noticed that he was freaking out and in her inimitable style would have ‘pulled it together.’ Her cervix would have shut down at 6 centimeters, and she would eventually have had a cesarean. To explain this, we call it failure to progress, when in actuality it is often just failure to take out the garbage.”1

In our lifetime we accumulate a lot of garbage: emotional baggage full of toxic thoughts, self-limiting and damaging notions, and negative scripts. The more aware we are of these, the more we own our own problem areas, the less likely we are to pollute our children with our mental poison. By the same token, the more empathic, caring, and nurturing we are, the more we instill in our progeny, from conception on, feelings of self-worth, trust, and love.

Prenatal Dialogue
How are maternal emotions and thoughts communicated to the unborn child? The channels of communication are various. Right from the moment of conception, the unborn child has a dialogue with the mother and, through her, the outside world. When all the channels are active, the baby receives the full message; it’s like stereophonic sound. This umbilical dialogue takes place across three channels:

  • Channel 1: Molecular Communication Maternal molecules of emotion, including stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, neurohormones, and sex hormones, reach the unborn child through the umbilical cord and placenta. In this sense, the unborn child is as much part of the mother’s body as her heart or liver.
  • Channel 2: Sensory Communication When a pregnant mother strokes her stomach, talks, sings, walks, or runs, she is communicating with her baby through the baby’s senses. Newborns “speak” to their mothers through crying, and mothers can soon decipher the meaning of their cries. The sound of “Good morning, Mom, I’m awake” is very different from “I have an awful pain in my tummy.” Similarly, the unborn child can communicate through kicking. For example, when she listens to music she likes, she will kick energetically but gently. Expose her to the loud, shrill noises of pneumatic drills or a rock concert, and the baby will become progressively more agitated, subjecting the mother to a series of painful kicks. Obviously, some mothers, depending on their own upbringing or circumstances, are better attuned to this kind of communication than others. If they are depressed, anxious, exposed to violence, or high on drugs or alcohol, mothers are unlikely to be good listeners or good senders of positive messages.
  • Channel 3: Intuitive Communication I’m sure you have experienced this many times: You stand in a room speaking to someone. Suddenly, you have the urge to turn around. As you do, you meet the eyes of the person who has been looking at you. Or you have probably read or heard of cases of twins who, though they may live thousands of miles apart, are able to sense when one or the other of them is seriously ill or in trouble. These exchanges occur between people who are neither connected to each other’s blood circulation nor touching or talking. They happen frequently between individuals who are closely bound to each other emotionally. One might say that such people are on the same wavelength. Can you think of any two beings more connected than a mother and her unborn child? Is it surprising, then, that they should be able to communicate in this intuitive way? The intuitive channel transmits the mother’s thoughts, intentions, and much of her emotion to her baby. The mother receives messages by the same channel from her unborn child, often in the form of dreams.

It is through this complex system of prenatal communication that the unborn child learns about herself, her mother, and the world at large.

Musical Lessons
Many years ago, I received an amusing letter from a woman who during her pregnancy always performed her Lamaze exercises while watching reruns of M*A*S*H. “The M*A*S*H theme became a signal for me to relax,” the mother wrote. “I forgot the tensions of the day—including the problems between my husband and myself—and felt truly happy.”

“As early as six months after her son was born, the mother noticed that whenever the M*A*S*H theme came on, he would stop whatever he was doing and stare at the television as if in a trance.

Another patient of mine recalled a Peter, Paul and Mary song she had sung repeatedly during her pregnancy. After the birth of her child, that song had a magical effect on the infant: no matter how hard he was crying, whenever his mother started singing that song—and that song alone—he would quiet down.

No one questions the fact that sound and motion reach the baby in the womb. Evidence that babies recognize the mother’s voice—and even words or stories she repeats—has been accepted for years. Numerous studies now indicate that the most effective means of communication may be delivered through music. Although the research is fairly recent, the technique is as ancient as motherhood itself.

In rural Uganda, for instance, women dance and sing throughout pregnancy, then use the same songs to lull their babies to sleep after they have been born. In Nigeria, ritual dances and songs accompany the prenatal period. In Japan, the traditional practice of Taiko involved communicating with the unborn child through song.

One of the first modern researchers to study singing during pregnancy was obstetrician Michel Odent, who organized group meetings around a piano in the French village of Pithiviers. As expectant mothers in the group sang together, Odent found, group intimacy increased—and so did the bond between each mother and her yet-to-be-born child. Compared with an ordinary population of pregnant women, Odent’s singing group reported easier births and more powerful bonding between mother and baby immediately afterward.2

Odent’s findings piqued the interest of Rosario N. Rozada Montemurro, a midwife who launched the maternal education program at the Health Center at Vilamarxant, Spain. Montemurro and her colleagues created a space and time for expectant mothers to sing. “Meeting to sing one day a week for two hours is now an activity we offer in addition to the basic theoretical classes, walks, picnics, games, films, and meetings with the babies’ fathers,” Montemurro says.3 The chaotic nature of the clinic, notes Montemurro, does not encourage privacy, intimacy, and silence during birth itself, making the benefits of singing especially important to participants in her group. This environment, she says, “makes it doubly important that we create ways in which a mother finds strength which allows her to believe that she, her baby, and her husband are the principal protagonists during delivery,” and that she will be able to bond with her baby and breastfeed thereafter. “Extras” such as singing, she notes, increase the likelihood of success.

If singing teaches the unborn child anything, the findings indicate, it may be the basics of bonding and love. Montemurro has found that most expectant mothers have the need to link themselves together, “sharing common anxieties, fantasies, questions, fears, problems, and solutions.” The connective consciousness these mothers form through singing extends to their unborn children.

The Vilamarxant repertoire includes traditional lullabies in Spanish and Valencian, the local dialect, so that the mothers can sing to their newborns the songs they learned and performed during the group singing. “We included cradle songs which imitated rocking-chair rhythms,” says Montemurro. “Some of our mothers could remember their own mothers and grandmothers singing small children to sleep. Some of them could remember being lulled to sleep themselves as the sounds of rocking chairs formed the rhythmic, monotonous ‘tic-tac’ against the wooden floor, reminding them of their own mothers’ heartbeats. Participants learned the old lullabies and folk songs of their mothers and grandmothers joyfully and enthusiastically. As they learned the traditional cradle songs, their own desire to cradle their unborn babies became embodied in music and in words.”

While an empirical study based on Montemurro’s technique has yet to be done, the clinical findings are impressive. Montemurro reports that the pregnant women in her study could feel their unborn children participating in the songs through spontaneous and harmonious fetal movement. Among the traits that researchers have noted are especially prevalent in these children after birth are heightened awareness, ease of bonding, and, at one month of age, a propensity to smile quickly and easily. Mothers report that lullabies sung before birth are especially effective in calming babies and inducing sleep.

Boosting Brain Power
The newest models of neuroscience tell us that sounds, rhythms, and other forms of prenatal stimulation reaching the unborn child are not merely imprinted on the brain but literally act to shape it.

Much of the evidence, of course, comes from animal models. Working with rats, the renowned UCLA neuroscientist Marian Diamond was the first to show that pregnant rats housed in enriched and varied environments produced offspring that had larger brains and were more capable of navigating complex mazes than rats not so housed. These findings apply to people, too. “Though the Western world is only recently becoming aware of such a practice, Asian people for centuries have encouraged the pregnant mother to enrich her developing fetus by having pleasant thoughts and avoiding angry, disturbing behavior,” Diamond notes.4, 5 Indeed, just as fetal brain cells decrease in size when deprived of nourishment or exposed to alcohol, says Diamond, they apparently increase in size when stimulation is introduced.

Diamond suggests caution when contemplating anything more than gentle stimulation of the unborn. “We still do not know whether an enriched condition during pregnancy can prevent some of the massive nerve cell loss, as much as 50 percent to 65 percent of the total population of cells, which occurs during the development of the fetus,” she notes. “It is apparent that overproduction of neurons occurs in the fetus because most neurons do not reproduce themselves after being formed: an excess number is needed as a safety factor. Therefore, those that are not involved in the early neuronal processing are ‘weeded out.’

“Though enriched experimental environments have not been shown to alter the number of nerve cells,” Diamond explains, “our results have indicated that variation in the experimental environment can readily alter the size of the preexisting nerve cells in the cerebral cortex, whether in the cell body or in its rich membrane extensions, the dendrites, or in synapses. The importance of stimulation for the well-being of the nerve cells has been demonstrated in many species. But of equally weighty significance is the possible detrimental effect of too much stimulation. The eternal question arises, When is enough enough or too much too much?” The respected pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton points out that infants exposed to too much stimulation—that is, teaching, playing, noise, etc.—respond either by crying, by extending their periods of sleep, by developing colic, or simply by withdrawing. Because the unborn child cannot always register her discomfort, it is all the more vital that we place limits on efforts to stimulate the baby in the womb.6

“The nervous system possesses not just a morning of plasticity, but an afternoon and an evening,” Diamond notes. “It is essential not to force a continuous stream of information into the developing brain but to allow for periods of consolidation and assimilation in between.”

Summing Up
The findings of neuroscience leave no doubt: prenatal stimulation through all three communication channels is essential for the growth and efficient development of the prenatal brain. But more important, the prenatal classroom is better suited for lessons of intimacy, love, and trust than for intellectual calisthenics or boosting IQ. If nurtured in love and kindness, your child will easily acquire these other skills when the time comes.

1. Candace Fields Whitridge, “The Power of Joy: Pre- and Perinatal Psychology as Applied by a Mountain Midwife,” Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal 2, no. 3 (1988): 186-192.
2. Michel Odent, Towards a Less Mechanized Childbirth: Advances in International Maternal and Child Health (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985).
3. Rosario N. Rozada Montemurro, “Singing Lullabies to Unborn Children: Experience in Village Vilamarxant, Spain,” Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal 11, no. 1 (1996): 9-16.
4. Marion Diamond, “Mother’s Enriched Environment Alters Brains of Unborn Rats,” Brain/Mind Bulletin 12, no. 7 (1987): 1, 5.
5. M. C. Diamond, “The Significance of Enrichment,” in Enriching Heredity (New York: The Free Press, 1988).
6. T. Berry Brazelton, as quoted in Susan Quinn, “The Competence of Babies,” Atlantic Monthly, January 1982: 54-62.

See www.mothering.com for articles and discussion boards on pregnancy.

Thomas R. Verny, MD, is a gifted psychiatrist, academic, writer, communicator, and accoucheur to prenatal and perinatal psychology. He is the author or coauthor of seven books, including the 1981 international best seller The Secret Life of the Unborn Child and the recently published Pre-Parenting: Nurturing Your Child from Conception, as well as 45 scientific papers. He is the visionary founder and first president of the Association for Pre- & Perinatal Psychology and Health on whose board of directors he continues to serve. Dr. Verny is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute.

Pamela Weintraub, a science journalist with 20 years’ experience in writing about health and medicine, is the author or coauthor of 16 books.

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