How fetal experiences can impact your baby.
After 35+ years of research, it is now well documented that fetal intelligence exists in the womb. There is even a bumper sticker stating, “The Womb is a School and all Babies Attend.”
Babies begin to hear at about 22 weeks gestation. They feel touch, experience the effects of growth or stress hormones by expanding or contracting at the cellular level, perceive the intention of our words and actions, and take on the movement experiences of their gestational mother.* Babies in the womb even develop implicit memory that is later reflected in the subconscious and in autonomic nervous system functioning.
A newborn human baby has a very underdeveloped nervous system and needs our loving and caring help to assist in regulating, or settling. The human brain will grow to 80% of its full capacity in the first year after birth. A baby’s brain operates with the low and mid brain functions and grows in concert with the nervous system and spinal development. This is what makes us unique as human mammals as we have to grow into our high brain, the neocortex. Early experiences create the architecture of our brain growth and are integral in the formation of our sense of Self.
All of these factors create fetal imprints that can help new parents as a guide to understanding their newborns and how to help them soothe, settle, engage, and develop a strong attachment for thriving on all levels.
Some examples of prenatal imprints include: babies knowing the music that they heard in the womb, babies desiring movement similar to what they experienced in the womb, and babies who experienced undue stress in the womb.
Parents who can attune to their baby’s fetal imprints develop stronger emotional bonds and feel more successful at early parenting. Here’s 3 things to consider when building prenatal imprints:
- Sound. I met a baby once whose father was a West African drummer and mother was a West African dancer. Both the music and the dance of this culture involve complex poly rhythms where the head might be moving to 4 counts, the shoulders to 6 counts, the feet to 9 counts, etc. This baby who was about 7 months old moved its body polyrhythmically as it sat by its father as he played the drums. It was an amazing site to behold. The baby had heard and experienced the movement of these rhythms all during its fetal period.
- Movement. Mothers who engage in strong exercise during pregnancy such as running, yoga, dance, elliptical machine, etc. have been teaching their babies about deep, rhythmic, strong, and direct movement. It is no surprise that to help their babies settle gentle bouncing or swaying does not work, but deep rhythmic squats, or walking with baby in a carrier does help. The latter is the familiar!
- Stress. What about a less desirable imprint where the fetus was exposed to undue stress? Such an example might include illness or surgery of the mother in pregnancy, death of a loved one in pregnancy, loss of a job or home, or immense stress at work. As odd as it may sound, talking with your baby about these situations can be immensely helpful.
Let’s consider that almost all parents talk to their babies in the womb anyway. If you are pregnant, or postpartum, and things were overly stressful at some point, simply acknowledging this amidst including reassuring words about your commitment to being there for the baby can make a big difference in regard to the baby releasing contracted behavior related to worry or concern on an implicit level.
So how can you create positive fetal imprints?
- If you are the Birth Mother, try to develop a habit of daily relaxation or rest with some calm music or deep breathing. Once born, your baby will find this familiar and you can use the same music or practices when helping baby settle for sleep. Consider that your baby is always moving in amniotic fluid and the movement really is very familiar and settling. Have the other parents note what movement the mother is doing in pregnancy so that parent can also mimic it to help the new baby settle.
- Massage the pregnant belly and use this as a time to talk with your fetus about your day so it knows you are right there for support. The other parent can do this as well.
- Observe your daily life and see if it feels balanced. If it is not, ask yourself what you can do easily to help create more balance. What can you do or are you doing to Welcome Your Baby in its foundational fetal world.
*Gestational, or “birth” mother is selected to acknowledge the many ways families are created in our current times. This term accommodates adopted babies, as well as babies born via surrogacy.
Photography by Amy Frances for Well Rounded NY.