Don't wait until your baby's born to get interacting. Significant learning happens in the womb, writes Dagi Heider-Fray.
With advances in science making it possible for us to see what is actually happening in the womb, one of the biggest surprises has been that babies are no passive passengers but fully alert and emotionally involved human beings at a very early stage of the pregnancy.
We know today, after almost 15 years of studies, that babies have the ability to learn, memorise and internalise their experiences in the womb.
Long before your baby is born she has gained knowledge of who you are and the environment you live in. She senses her parents' love and concerns long before she is cradled in your loving arms. The womb not only provides the unborn child with all the necessary nutrients but also gives information about the world she will soon enter. It is an ingenious system by Mother Nature.
A pioneer in the field of prenatal health and prenatal psychiatry, Dr Thomas Verny, established with his peers over the course of decades that beyond any doubt parents have an overwhelming influence on the physical, emotional and mental development of their unborn child. It is the quality of life in the womb where our programming begins, which will later influence long-term health and behaviour.
Over the past 15 years many books and programmes have been made available to expectant parents, allowing them to actively and consciously interact with their unborn child, therefore creating the most beneficial environment in the womb. I run a programme in Auckland called "Womb Time", where parents can begin to consciously interact with their unborn child as early as week 15 when the baby's sensory system begins to develop.
Learning in the womb
A famous study, called "Of Human Bonding: Newborns Prefer Their Mothers' Voices", conducted by the University of North Carolina, demonstrated that the unborn child does learn in the womb and with repetition will remember what it has learned for recall after birth.
The study had mothers read the story of The Cat in the Hat to their unborn baby while pregnant. After the birth, a set of recordings was played and the baby learned quickly that by sucking on one specific nipple the mother's reading of the story would be played. The baby showed no interest in any other story or version of The Cat in the Hat - only the one read by his mother.
Another experiment had mothers repeating a children's rhyme daily for four weeks from 33 to 37 weeks in utero. At 37 weeks - while still in utero - the babies reacted with a change of heart rate to the familiar rhyme, but not to an unfamiliar rhyme. Again, this not only demonstrates that the unborn can learn and memorise but also that physical changes occur in the baby and this knowledge can later be used to make him feel calm, relaxed and secure.
Benefits of prenatal bonding
Mothers and fathers have a wonderful opportunity to bond and interact with their unborn child at each stage of the pregnancy as their baby's sensory organs develop. This allows you to not only create a long-lasting, deep and profound bond but also to create a physical memory which activates the beneficial para-sympathetic nervous system of the baby.
Here are some ways I encourage you to interact and bond with your baby in the womb:
📚 Pick a children's book and begin to read to your unborn child.
📚 Make time to listen to music you find relaxing and calming, such as classical or ambient music, and play that later to your baby.
📚 Listen to a specialised guided meditation CD for relaxation.
📚 Interact and acknowledge your baby when he begins to kick. Put your hand on the abdomen where the baby kicked and say, "Kick, baby, kick." Babies will quickly learn to kick where the parent's hand is placed.
Since the early 1980s studies around the world have been conducted to measure the advantages of prenatal bonding and conscious stimulation. The studies have found the mothers experienced easier births, their babies had superior Apgar scores, and had consistently superior visual, auditory, language, memory and motor skills. Furthermore mothers felt more confident about the birth and being a parent.
Mums also reported feeling very much in tune with their babies' needs which meant babies were quickly settled, leaving both parties more relaxed. Babies also ate and slept better, formed a stronger relationship with their parents and later demonstrated better emotional self-regulation and cognitive processing.
By observing twin pregnancies we can also see, long before the development of advanced brain structure, prenates interacting with one another. In fact, ultrasound imaging shows an emotional involvement which was not thought possible. Twins were seen cuddling, hitting and playing with one another. Some behaviour even showed a kind of protest, such as arching the back or trying to hit with a closed fist; suggesting self-protection, fear or anger. We know today that the brain structure that controls emotions is well developed in utero and the template of the baby's personality begins to develop from mid-trimester to two years of age. Twin studies also allow us to confirm that DNA does not turn itself on and that it is our emotional/physical environment that turns DNA on and off.
Studies show that the unborn child (awake or asleep) is constantly tuned into his mother's actions, thoughts and feelings. We already know that every thought and emotion, good or bad, has a physical reaction within ourselves. Through the placenta these stimuli are then transmitted to the unborn child, influencing the same target tissue and organs in the foetus as they do in the mother.
he development of foetal tissue and organs is proportional to both the amount of blood they receive and the function they provide. For example, if a mother perceives the environment as threatening (due to a dominant partner/unwanted pregnancy/financial worries etc), the body stays in a fight or flight response.
This stress response causes the blood to be automatically directed to the major muscle groups (such as arms and legs) and to the region of the brain that is responsible for life-saving reflex behaviour. Hence a lesser amount of blood supply flows to the region of the brain which is the problem-solving and creative part of our mind. Studies have confirmed that not only sub-optimal nutrition causes deficiency in babies but cortisol levels are directly linked to the organ and brain development in the foetus.
Sub-optimal conditions in the womb have also been linked to a number of adult ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, ADHD, schizophrenia and obesity.
An Italian parenting organisation makes the use of a sonogram to demonstrate how the foetus reacts to an argument between mother and father. The foetus jumps when the argument starts, then arches its body and jumps up and down. This demonstrates that the unborn child is able to react to more than its nutritional environment. It reacts to the way the parents perceive their environment as the chemical changes transmit via the placenta to the foetus. This observation reinforces that the foetus has an emotional involvement and is no passive passenger.
Be a careful driver
With this insight parents can consciously and positively influence their unborn child by bathing it in love, joy, harmony and happiness. You can be the most responsible driver you can for your very active passenger by being conscious of the effect your state of mind has on your unborn baby's emotional development.
Dagi Heider-Fray, CCHt (A.C.H.E and APPPAH) was trained in the United States and has been in private practice in Auckland for the past four years. She immigrated from Germany 19 years ago and has been married to Peter for 11 years: "A wonderful and amazing Kiwi boy," she says. For more information visit: www.wombtime.co.nz and www.mindmattershypnotherapy.co.nz.