During the past 30 years, revolutionary discoveries in genetics, neuroscience and developmental psychology have transformed our understanding of infant development. As a result, a new study field in psychology, called “Pre and Perinatal Psychology” has taken shape, and researchers in this field are working hard to help change the way most people view the unborn child and the role of the pregnant mother.
“We have underestimated for the longest time the mental and emotional development of unborn children. We know with absolute certainty today that at least by the end of the second trimester (and I am being very cautious here) the unborn child is a sensitive, feeling, aware and remembering human being,” says Dr Thomas Verny, who is a world renowned psychiatrist and the founder of the Association for Pre and Perinatal Development and Health (APPPAH).
Numerous studies indicate that everything a pregnant mother experiences, the air that she breathes, the stress in her life, what she drinks and eats, even her feelings and her thoughts; all of these things influence the development of the unborn child to a larger or a lesser degree, depending on the circumstances.
Consequently, pregnant mothers are no longer viewed as “living incubators”, but rather as active participators in the development of their unborn children. Furthermore, since fathers play such an important role in most mothers’ lives, they are also more important during the prenatal period than previously imagined. Clearly, being a good parent starts long before a new baby gives his first cry.
One of the interesting studies that have recently made headlines proved that unborn babies pick up on their mothers’ mood. Researchers at the Nagasaki University in Japan carefully recorded and analyzed the arm, leg and body movements of 24 unborn babies with the help of an ultra-sound scanner while the mothers of these babies were watching television. Ten of the mothers viewed an upbeat five-minute clip from the Julie Andrews musical, The Sound of Music, while the rest were shown a tear-jerking five minutes from a movie oy crying at the death of his father.
Earlier studies, such as those done by Dr Sheila Woodward in the early 90’s, showed that recordings of music and voices played at an average volume about two metres away from a pregnant mother are audible inside the womb and that unborn babies respond to the sounds they hear. With this in mind, the Nagasaki researchers asked the mothers in their study to wear headphones to make sure that their unborn babies weren’t influenced by the soundtracks. They also “sandwiched” each of the emotional clips between two extracts of neutral programmes to make it easier for them to detect any changes in the babies’ movements.
Interestingly, the fetuses moved their arms significantly more enthusiastically during the happy clip, while the unborn babies of the mothers who watched the sad scene moved significantly less than they normally do.
Why is this important?
The number of brain cells, called neurons, in a baby’s brain increases at a staggering rate during the prenatal period; from 1 to 100 billion in a matter of 40 weeks. The basic structure of the wiring between the neurons is genetically determined, but the finer details depend largely on a child’s experiences. In other words, a baby who gets to listen to music during pregnancy and early on in life, while the brain is still being wired, will develop more connections between brain cells in those areas of the brain that are pre-destined to process music than a baby who is rarely exposed to music. As a result, the first baby will not only recognise the particular genre of music that he has been exposed to; he will also indicate by his behaviour that he prefers listening to it.
Similarly, a baby that gets to spend the first nine months of his life developing inside the womb of a mother who is a happy, relaxed and positive kind of person, will be better “wired for happiness” at birth than he would be otherwise.
Luckily, we know that our window of opportunity doesn’t end at birth, or 40 weeks after conception. A child’s brain remains extremely malleable and impressionable up to their third birthday, and for many practical purposes throughout the first seven years of life; so much so that educators often refer to the first seven years as the “formative years”.
As Dr Verny says, “The brain is sensitive to experience throughout life, but experience during the critical periods of prenatal and early postnatal life organizes the brain.”
Written by Lizette van Huyssteen