New research supports what mothers have long believed, that babies in the womb hear what’s going on outside. Even more intriguing, there is evidence that babies may share in their mothers’ emotions. For centuries many cultures have believed that some sort of emotional network operated between mother and baby, and for this reason admonished mothers to keep their minds and bodies pure during pregnancy. In the past twenty-five years the new field of prenatal psychology has sprung up. Using new technology, prenatal psychologists have used various windows to the womb and have found much that is credible about these superstitions. When mother is happy, baby is happy; when mother is anxious, baby is too.
1. Understand what preborn babies may hear. Concert-going mothers report their preborn babies jump at the sudden sound of drums. In fact, from at least the 23rd week on, a preborn baby’s hearing is developed enough to enable him to respond to outside noise. Prenatal researchers believe that from at least six months of pregnancy onward the preborn baby is aware of and influenced by what’s going on in the outside world. (From the 28th week on, the cortex of the brain is developed enough for thinking, which is actually one of the reasons 28- week-old premature babies can often survive.) Babies seem agitated by rock music, kicking violently when they hear it and are calmed by classical music. Even the five-month-old fetus has been found to have discriminating musical ears. In one study, kicking babies calmed to the sounds of Vivaldi but became agitated in response to Beethoven.
2. Know that sound may stimulate a six-month old fetus. Studies also show that a six-month-old fetus can move his body to the rhythm of his mother’s speech. Perhaps most astounding, preborn babies can be taught when to kick. Researchers stimulated babies to kick by making a loud noise. After these babies were used to kicking with the noise, the researchers placed a vibrator on mother’s abdomen immediately following the noise. Soon these smart little babies learned to kick in response to only the vibration. In other words, they learned to associate the noise with the sensation.
3. Understand what your preborn baby may sense. Not only can a preborn baby react to sound, he or she can perceive different tastes and sights. Add sweetener to the amniotic fluid and the fetal gourmet doubles his rate of swallowing; add a sour substance and baby slows his swallowing. Even as early as the fourth month baby frowns, squints, and grimaces in response to experimentally produced outside stimuli. At five months the fetus can startle in response to a light blinking at mother’s abdomen.
4. Understand what your preborn baby may think. Can a fetus form attitudes about life even before birth? Prenatal psychologists claim yes. If so, do a pregnant mother’s thoughts influence the emotional life of her preborn baby? Prenatal researchers believe that there is indeed some connection between what a mother thinks and how her baby feels, and that from six months on a preborn baby can share mother’s emotions via the hormones associated with them.
5. Consider the long-term effects of your emotional life. One of the most controversial areas of prenatal research is the study of correlations between a mother’s emotional life while pregnant and the later personality of her child. Is an anxious mother more likely to produce an anxious baby? Studies relating maternal attitudes to the emotional development of the offspring do indeed reveal a tendency for anxious mothers to produce anxious babies. They also show that mothers who resented being pregnant and felt no attachment to their babies were more likely to have children who had emotional problems. Mothers with less anxious pregnancies, whose babies were wanted and loved, tended to have emotionally healthy children. While studies suggest that the short-term emotional upsets and quickly resolved anxieties that occur in all pregnancies do not harm the baby emotionally, major emotional disturbances and unresolved stresses throughout the pregnancy, may lead to emotionally troubled children. Extreme maternal distress even poses a risk of hurting baby physically, as it has been linked with increased risk of prematurity and low birth weight.
6. Understand the stress-hormone link. What could cause this fascinating correlation between maternal thoughts and fetal personality development? Certainly, mother’s emotions don’t cross the placenta, but her hormones do. Researchers believe that a stressed mother produces an abundance of stress hormones called catecholamines, which have been shown to, in turn, affect emotions. When catecholamines are taken from frightened animals and injected into other animals, the recipients act frightened as well. Scientists theorize that these chemical stressors cross the placenta and “frighten” the developing nervous system. If it happens often enough, the fetus actually gets used to feeling chronically stressed. His system is prepared to overreact to stimuli. Babies who are born with an already overcharged and possibly disturbed nervous system show more emotional disturbances and gastrointestinal upsets, which will earn this baby the label “colicky.”
7. Grow a healthy baby. Responsibility for the physical and emotional health of a baby is a heavy burden to place on a pregnant mother already worried about keeping her baby safe from a confusing world. Not only must she abstain from polluted foods and try to avoid polluted air, now she must guard against polluted thoughts! Relax! Take reasonable measures to rid your life of tension, take time to rest and revel in positive emotions, but understand that there is reason to be concerned only about emotional problems that are serious and last throughout the pregnancy. Do whatever you can to be sure your baby gets the best emotional start. Remember that emotions, positive or negative, are more intense during pregnancy. Resolve stresses quickly, in a positive fashion; seek professional help if necessary. Talk to, sing to, and share affectionate thoughts with your baby. If nothing else, it will make your pregnancy nicer for you.