Prenatal Experiences and How They Can Impact Parents and Their Children

diane sitting on steps with three kidsAuthor’s Note: Please, as you read this, note that it is important for you to check all guilt and shame feelings at the door should the information resonate with you. Children, including unborn children, are both resilient and malleable. Pregnant moms can experience all levels of anxiety. If their unborn children shared in experiencing the neurochemicals (i.e., brain hormones) from the anxiety of their mom, there is much that can be done, once a child is born, to repair and help the infant’s brain to recover from any potential damage to it.

It can be helpful for all parents (and those who care for parents) to understand some of the following basics about the prenatal experience:

The womb is one of the safest and most calming worlds a person ever experiences…quiet and peaceful, with the baby gently rocking as mom walks and moves. The baby is bathed in warm, soothing water and never feels cold, hungry or thirsty.

Muted sounds of mom’s heart beat a constant, rhythmic swush-swush-swush that later in life becomes the way moms and others comfort their crying children. (Think about how parents often rock their children and pat them with the same rhythm of a heartbeat while softly saying, “Shush, shush.”)

However, the womb environment is not immune to traumatic insults an unborn child can experience.

If mom is terrified by something and adrenaline washes through her body in response to her fear, that adrenaline is transferred to the baby through the umbilical cord. Those hormones cause the unborn child to experience its own stress response in the primitive parts of its brain.

If this happens occasionally, the brain is able to return to homeostasis with little or no permanent damage.

However, if it happens repeatedly, and the amount of stress hormones released is significant, the immature brain can begin to formulate traumatic memories. The traumatic memories stored in the maturing amygdala, raise the fetus’ stress levels and decrease some of the sense the world is a safe place.

While not yet in the world, prenatal trauma can be a kind of adverse childhood experience (ACE) initiating many of the same repercussions that occur when infants and young children are exposed to the high stresses of childhood adversity.

For example, I was a mom who was extremely anxious during my pregnancies, especially my first one. I experienced severe panic attacks multiple times every day, something that had started when I was 14 years old.

a pregnant mom, smilingI was told at the time that my distress would not affect my unborn child. Boy was that wrong! When my first daughter was born, she was a ball of anxiety. She cried incessantly—sometimes for as many as 14 hours a day. Her little body was rigid, so much so the pediatrician had her hips x-rayed when she was only three weeks old to make sure the fact that they did not rotate well was not some kind of congenital disorder. It wasn’t; it was just an indicator of her stress levels.

Fortunately for me and for her, I had the loving support of a community called Nursing Mothers. I also had support from my own parents and was able to provide her with a warm and loving environment, with lots of holding and rocking, and all the elements that promoted secure attachment.

How did these early experiences affect my daughter later in life?

While my daughter struggled throughout childhood and adolescence with some of her own anxiety issues, I am confident her early childhood nurturing experiences helped her eventually to become a self-confident and highly successful pediatric nurse practitioner, wife, and mother.

Recently, I shared with her some of what her prenatal experiences must’ve been like and how the impact of the anxiety was evidenced in her body once she was out of the womb.

As a pediatric professional, she noted that it was much like a child whose mother had been a methadone addict, and she probably was in extreme pain as a result.

My hope was that this information could help her better understand herself and how far she had come. I also felt the need to apologize to her for giving her such a challenging start in life, all the while knowing I really didn’t choose to be the anxious mother I was back then.

While this is all pretty dramatic, there are a couple lessons to be learned, not only for parents who are expecting, but for those around them who can offer support:

    • Your stresses and anxieties during pregnancy can impact your unborn child.

      It is important for you to get all the emotional and relational care you need to help you reduce that anxiety, now more than ever, because it’s not just about you.

    • At the same time, you may not be able to manage your bouts with high stress and high anxiety.

      While you do the best you can if your newborn (or perhaps even an older child) shows evidence of some of the anxiety he or she experienced before birth, you might share some of this information and encourage your child/young adult/grown person to appreciate some of the reasons for his or her anxiety.

  • Learn about all the ways to promote secure attachment in your infant, young children and adolescents.

    It may be more challenging with a child who is born having experienced high levels of stress in utero, but my daughter and I are living proof that it is absolutely possible to reverse high levels of stress after birth by providing an abundance of love and nurture.

  • Be extremely kind to yourself if you experienced or currently are experiencing high levels of stress in your life.

    Chances are excellent these are not your fault. We often are the victims of our family’s legacies perpetrated over generations. Some are the result of difficult life situations and others the result of toxic core beliefs and behaviors. We can work to address unhealthy core beliefs and behaviors to help reduce our stress levels so we do not to pass them on to our children and their children.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you, or someone in your family, experienced a lot of anxiety and stress during pregnancy, how does this information impact you? Can you learn it while simultaneously making sure it does not evoke guilt or shame feelings?
  2. Whether you are pregnant, love someone who is pregnant, or may one day be in this situation, what can you do to reduce stress, and therefore, the production and release of strong, potentially toxic stress hormones?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute

Reference: [Many thanks to Bruce Perry for first sharing the info about stress in-utero and its potential impact.] For more info go to https://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/developmental-trauma-2/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYyEEMlMMb0


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