Mothers, some of the most potent parental influence you will have on your child takes place while he or she is still in your womb -- so let's hope that most of your days while pregnant are Happy Mother's Days! While you are pregnant, your baby’s organs and tissues develop in direct response to lessons they receive about the world. These lessons come from your diet, your behavior and your state of mind -- thereby hinting at the function of joy in pregnancy.
If there is chronic stress in pregnancy, if a pregnant mother’s thoughts and emotions are persistently negative, if she is experiencing unrelenting anxiety, the internal message -- delivered to the developing baby -- is, “It’s a dangerous world out there,” regardless of whether or not this is objectively true. The baby’s neural cells and nervous system development will actually mutate (adapt) to prepare for the unsafe environment it perceives it is going to be born into.
Chronic stress in pregnancy tends to sculpt a brain suited to survive in dangerous environments: short of attention, quick to react, with reduced impulse control, with a dampened capacity to feel calm and content. (What does this sound like? If you said ADHD, that is indeed one of several correct answers.) This is very different than the brain we seek to sculpt when raising a generation of peacemakers -- who will need to have capacities like self-regulation, creative innovation, mental flexibility, and a robust will.
I want to make it clear right away that I am not blaming pregnant mothers for being stressed!! I am pointing out a conundrum of life today: all of us, including pregnant mothers, are exposed 24/7 to the Too Much Information / Too Many Choices barrage that is a feature of our techno-saturated-always-on-never-stop world. Of all of us, though, it is only pregnant women who are in the process of shaping new brains based on their real-time experience of life. Rather than blame or guilt, I hope to spread empowerment through understanding: I believe that when women understand the stakes, and the options, they are in a position to make the healthiest choices for the wellbeing of their coming children!
Pregnancy is Nature's Head Start Program
Mounting evidence tells us that circumstances in the womb program our health in critical, life-altering ways. The prenatal environment is equally as important as genes, perhaps even more important, in determining lifelong physical and mental health.[i] Science now recognizes that physiological and psychological health are intimately entwined, each one supporting and reinforcing the optimal expression of the other. Indeed, there is far more to an individual than his or her physical body, and along with lifelong physical health, the personality begins to be organized during fetal development.
This concurs with 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 mental and emotional wellbeing.[ii] There are countless fascinating case histories in the literature to support the connection between experiences in utero and certain affinities, compulsions, behavioral patterns, fears and fascinations in later life.
What sits at the nexus of physiological, psychological and intellectual wellbeing? Robustly health brain development!
U.C. Berkeley professor of integrative biology Marian Diamond cautions,
If we’re putting millions of dollars into Head Start, which begins at three, four, or five years of age, and haven’t developed the appropriate brain to receive that education, it will be a waste of money. It is important to be sure that the brain has developed well in utero. So when you start with formal education, you have the nerve cells and the dendrites that can respond.[iii]
Current research specifically suggests that attention to health factors during prenatal development may prevent childhood aggression, teenage delinquency, and violence in adulthood.[iv]
This is why my book Parenting for Peace includes the prenatal (and even pre-prenatal) stages in its parenting roadmap for raising peacemakers. Prenatal parenting empowers you with the ability to make conscious choices to equip your child with the fundamental capacities required for experiencing abundant peace within and promoting innovative peace without, throughout the many years of his or her life.
Stress in Pregnancy
Nature in her wisdom has decreed that while we’re in the womb, our brain develops in direct response to our mother’s experience of the world. We have precious few success stories of joy and delight as a prenatal influence, and many bleak ones that feature prenatal stress. The reason for this is that our evolutionarily mandated memory processing apparatus is designed first and foremost for survival: beginning in the womb and continuing during our early years in the world, it is primarily negative experiences, ones that are highly emotionally charged, that indelibly mark us in ways so lasting that those memories will keep us alive when the danger returns.
For the toddler this may be a hissing snake or a growling dog: his imprint of fear will help him remember to avoid those things. For the fetus, such an imprint occurs when the “interchange of satisfactory maternal-fetal emotion, so reliably good as to be scarcely noticed, is interrupted by the influx of maternal distress,” wrote British physician and prenatal researcher Frank Lake.[v] Psychiatrist Thomas Verny in his landmark book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child charts what the prenatal baby may learn, and how she is changed, when “successive hormonal jolts” perturb the dynamic harmony that is the optimal state of the womb.
But stress has become almost like white noise: it’s so ever-present as a concept and experience in our lives that we don’t give it much thought. The very word itself is so small and unimpressive. It doesn’t even sound scary, like carcinogen or polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). But cortisol, the primary hormone produced when we are stressed out, is a highly potent neurotoxin -- meaning, it kills brain cells. And in consistently high amounts during pregnancy, it wreaks havoc with a staggering array of developing structures and systems in the embryo and fetus.[vi]
The Function of Joy in Pregnancy
While science currently provides us a dizzying array of problems brought on by stress in pregnancy, I’m confident that scientists will soon also “prove” what so many wisdom traditions and cultures have long known about the role of joy in optimal prenatal development!
As I touched on above, we have little research thus far about the effects of extremely good prenatal experiences as mediated by the mother (such as spiritual ecstasy, living in conscious bliss, regular meditation, etc.). Yes, there are stray anecdotal reports, such as those of a handful of deeply spiritual parents Joseph Chilton Pearce talks about in his lectures -- while showing photographs of their peaceful, precocious children whose prefrontal brain structures are so robustly developed it is obvious to even an untrained observer gazing at their impressively expanded foreheads.[vii]
So why won’t we have any randomized double-blind studies of the effects of a pregnant mother’s joy on growth and wellbeing of her fetus? The wisp of cynic in me says for the same reason we have so few studies on how to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol through natural means: joy cannot be trademarked, patented or sold. But the reason is probably not quite so bleakly mercenary. Science as a discipline is only just beginning, tentatively, to mature toward the nuanced depths of human experience explored by literature, music or art.
Writes physician and primal health researcher Michel Odent about his fellow scientists:
We have to overcome a major obstacle: although many emotional states have been studied in a scientific way by physiologists, psychologists, epidemiologists and other scientists, the concept of joy has not. Explore scientific and medical databases: the keywords “anxiety,” “stress,” “depression,” “psychological distress” or “fear” bring up thousands of references. “Joy,” on the other hand, remains as a sterile keyword.
Today scientists do not hesitate to penetrate the realm of poets and other artists. All sorts of emotional states, including love and the connections to the sacred, have already been “scientified.” One day the concept of joy will be studied with scientific methods. One day the function of joy in pregnancy will appear as a serious topic. Meanwhile, we can indirectly study joy in pregnancy by looking at the opposite pole of the emotional spectrum.
High levels of cortisol have been found in states of chronic anxiety, depression, bereavement, chronic stress, and “maternal psychological distress in pregnancy.” In daily, simplified language, we can claim that whatever facet of unhappiness one considers, the level of cortisol is high. It is well understood today that cortisol is an inhibitor of fetal growth, particularly of brain development.
If joy is the opposite of anxiety, depression and psychological distress, we can reasonably assume that it is associated with low levels of cortisol. We can therefore propose that the function of joy in pregnancy is to protect the unborn child against the effects of the harmful stress hormones. Since lasting effects are still detectable in adulthood, we can even understand that joy in pregnancy is necessary to transmit from generation to generation the capacity to be joyful. Let us anticipate that in the near future imaginative scientists will find ways to clarify the role hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in joyful experiences.[viii]
Indeed, research from such disciplines as psychoneuroimmunology, cell biology, positive psychology and epigenetics reveals that joy allows for optimal functioning of our organs and psyche; by simple logical extension, we can confidently hypothesize that joy during pregnancy allows for optimal development of each fetal organ.
When the brain in particular develops optimally during gestation, this predisposes the baby -- and her parents -- to better self-regulation, attentiveness, responsiveness, and serenity. Such peace-oriented traits constitute the foundations of lifelong personality.
[i] Paul, Annie Murphy. Origins: How the Nine Months before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. New York: Free Press, 2010.
[ii] E.g., Janus, Ludwig. The Enduring Effects of Prenatal Experience: Echoes from the Womb. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997; Paul, Annie Murphy. Origins: How the Nine Months before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. New York: Free Press, 2010; Piontelli, Alessandra. From Fetus to Child. New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1992; Verny, Thomas, and John Kelly. The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. New York: Delta, 1982.
[iii] Diamond, Marian. “Enriching Heredity: How the Environment Impacts Brain Development.” Touch the Future, no. Spring (1997): 7-11.
[iv] Liu, Jianghongh. “Early Health Risk Factors for Violence: Conceptualization, Evidence, and Implications.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 16, no. 1 (2011): 63-73.
[v] House, Simon. “Primal Integration Therapy—School of Lake: Dr. Frank Lake Mb, Mrc Psych, Dpm (1914-1982).” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 14, no. 3-4 (2000): 213-35.
[vi] E.g., Davis, Elysia Poggi et al. “Prenatal Exposure to Maternal Depression and Cortisol Influences Infant Temperament.” J. Am. Acad. Child and Adoles. Psychiatry 46, no. 6 (2007): 737-46; Glover, Vivette. “Maternal Stress or Anxiety in Pregnancy and Emotional Development of the Child.” British Journal of Psychiatry, no. 171 (1997): 105-06; Glynn, Laura M., and Curt A. Sandman. “The Influence of Prenatal Stress and Adverse Birth Outcome on Human Cognitive and Neurological Development.” Int’l Review of Research in Mental Retardation 32 (2006): 109-36; O’Connor, Thomas G. et al. “Maternal Antenatal Anxiety and Children’s Behavioural/Emotional Problems at 4 Years.” British Journal of Psychiatry 180 (2002): 502-08; Wadhwa, PD. “Prenatal Stress and Life-Span Development.” In Encyclopedia of Mental Health, edited by H Friedman, 8-10. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.
[vii] Pearce, Joseph Chilton. “The Biology of Trancendence: Shaping Your Life in a Radically Changing World.” Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, September 20-21 2002.
[viii] Odent, Michel. “The Function of Joy in Pregnancy.” Primal Health Research Quarterly 14, no. 3 (2006).
I'm the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. As a gift to Mothering readers I'm offering a unique 7-step parenting tool, a "Quick-Start Guide to Shifting Your Child's Perplexing, Stuck Behaviors."