Our children's lives begin long before birth


HEALTH PLUS:We need to ensure our unborn children have a safe and secure prenatal world in which to develop, MARIE MURRAY.

EMOTIONAL WELLBEING begins before birth. This is not just because the psychological environment into which a child will be born is significant, but family factors preceding the birth are also important and in their own manner communicate themselves to the baby in utero. They determine the climate in which the pregnancy progresses.

Research provides expanding insights into the postnatal psychological consequences of prenatal life. Life begins not at birth but before it.

One piece of evidence for this is the way babies respond to voices, patterns of sounds, melodies and stories that they have heard prenatally when they are provided with those same sound sequences and experiences after birth.

Babies not only listen and show remarkable discrimination among sounds but they pay attention to sound patterns and have an extraordinary capacity to distinguish them. Research in the 1980s by DeCasper and Fifer showed that newborns distinguish their mother’s voice from other female voices and prefer their mother’s.

Not surprising, perhaps, given that this voice is dominant prenatally. But what is, perhaps, more interesting is the experiment in which pregnant women read a particular story repeatedly in the final six weeks of pregnancy to their unborn babies.

After birth when the story that had been read to them in utero was read to them again, in addition to other stories they had not previously heard, the story to which the babies responded was the one they had heard before birth.

This shows that even before birth infants are paying attention to and discriminating among complex sound configurations that we can measure. The baby in the womb is attuned to the world outside.

The implications of this are considerable in emotional terms. For they tell us that the baby is “listening” to the world he or she will enter. Babies hear the world before they join it. They are learning about it before they are born. This accounts for how much babies love to vocalise, how infants love rhyme, how children learn from rhythm and rhyme, and the emotional repertoire to which music exposes us throughout life.

Hearing is the last sense to leave us as we leave the world. It would seem to be equally significant before we enter it.

The capacity to be attuned to melody, to appreciate the cadences of poetry, to listen to the tone of a story, to become accustomed to language – these potentials which are there before we are born are not just laid down in a genetic code but are enhanced by the prenatal opportunities provided.

If we follow this line of thinking to a logical conclusion then there is also the converse: the baby may be disadvantaged before birth if its parents are in a poor relationship, if there are harsh words, angry exchanges, raised voices and particularly if there are episodes of violence.

Knowing the attention paid by the yet-to-be-born baby to what is happening in the personal world he or she will enter warns us about many things. It reminds us that exposure to a harsh auditory world is something a child might need protection from before birth and not just after it and that a safe, secure, calm, prenatal world has implications for psychological life.

The negative consequences of smoking, alcohol intake, poor diet and adverse physical environments are well documented. But while the many isolated strands of research about the prenatal capacities of the baby are known, specific guidelines with regard to emotional protection have been less clear about how to support pregnant mothers.

Inevitably, some of the research on womb life has been exploited in educational programmes by those who promote prenatal education for intellectual advancement and advantage over others.

But that is not the primary purpose of research on interuterine conditions. Rather than exploiting knowledge about life in the womb for competitive gain, this is information to be used to provide the most conducive environment for the development of human potential, happiness, security and love in order to lay down the psychological foundation that will support the child through all the developmental stages that lie ahead.

Of course, mothers do not need research to tell them about the active communicative bond between them and their babies. They talk to them. Many instinctively know the music their “babies” like. They know and note their periods of activity and quiescence. They reassure them. They know their babies before they meet them. And their babies know them.

  • Marie Murray is a director of psychology and the director of the Student Counselling Services in UCD