Dawn of Attachment: Why Mom’s Emotions Matter During Pregnancy

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Relax during pregnancyDuring my second pregnancy, I was a ball of nerves. While my baby was born healthily, she was of a lower birth weight than what was expected – only six pounds for a term baby. My doctor had warned me that not finding a way to lessen my anxiety during the pregnancy could cause problems, and one of those was a low birth weight.

That the mother’s emotions can affect the unborn baby’s development is certainly credible, but exactly how does this happen?

We know from neuroscience and psychology that the brain develops according to our experiences, so nurturing forms a child’s brain differently than harsh or ignorant parenting approaches. Because this development and programming of the brain is most extensive when the child is young and his brain is growing the fastest of all his life, it stands to reason that the same is taking place within the unborn baby’s brain as a fetus. The fetal brain is growing at an astounding rate – in only nine months, an unborn baby’s brain goes from nothing to 100 billion brain cells. We have to realize that it’s more than gray matter growing – it’s also the beginning of connections and pathways between the different parts of the brain, which will go on to develop of this new person’s personality, sense of self esteem, and ability to manage emotion and stress through her lifetime.

An article on 4Therapy.com, “Pre-Birth Bonding,” explains the in-utero experience to be the dawn of the attachment process, emphasizing that the emotional attachment between a mother and her child starts long before the day that the baby makes his appearance in the outside world. By the fifth month of pregnancy, the baby recognizes the mother’s voice and shows a preference for different genres of music, marked by a difference of movement type and frequency observed via electronic fetal monitors and ultrasound. The study “Fetal Brain Behavior and Cognitive Development,” published in Developmental Review in 2000, describes that while fetal responses to stimuli are a reflex of the brain stem, this primitive brain structure is capable of learning.

The unborn baby is further affected by an emotional attachment with her mother through what is called the neurohormonal dialogue – for example, when the pregnant woman becomes anxious, her stress hormones course not only through all of her body but that of the unborn baby, too. This is why severe and chronic stress in the woman is related to prematurity, low birth weights, and hyperaroused, colicky babies.

Healthy pregnancies are more than creating a physically healthy environment for your baby, taking such precautions as eating a balanced diet and quitting smoking. It’s also understanding your emotional connection and then creating a healthy psychological environment – relaxed, able to cope with stress, and quick recovery from strong emotions such as anger and sadness. This can be difficult to do, considering the hormones rushing through your body and especially anxiety if this is your first or an unexpected baby.

Ideas for Finding Balance While Pregnant

Staying emotionally balanced when you’re expecting is similar to handling stress at other times in your life. Attachment Parenting International Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker give a variety of strategies for parents to seek balance in their lives in their book, Attached at the Heart. Some of these include:

  • Work on a hobby or do an activity that you enjoy.
  • Visit with friends or join an API Support Group to seek input on concerns and make like-minded friends.
  • Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritiously, drinking plenty of water, and doing exercise that your health care provider approves of.
  • Focus on your marriage or partnership.
  • Follow your doctor or midwife’s recommendations in taking care of yourself during these nine months, and prepare yourself mentally for upcoming medical procedures, labor and childbirth, the newborn transition, and parenting.
  • Consider taking of meditation, yoga, or getting a massage specifically for pregnant women.

How did you stay relaxed during your pregnancy?

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