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The Intra-Uterine Experience Does Matter

We are familiar with the knowledge that the quality of nutrition and exposure to pollutants, drugs and infections during gestation affect fetal development and influence child and adult health. However, how does the psychological and emotional prenatal environment affect the fetus?

Increasing evidence suggests that intrauterine experience has persisting influences on health and development across the lifespan, causing epigenetic changes – genes are affected without altering the DNA.

Although we may think that we are born whole, born believing we are good enough and trusting the world, our thoughts and feelings may have been already altered before we leave the womb.

Catherine Monk, professor at Columbia University, proposed that a pregnant woman’s mental state can shape her offspring’s psyche. She stated, “Research indicates that even before birth, mothers’ moods may affect child development.”

A mother can play Mozart to the fetus all she wants, yet it is her psycho-emotional well-being that is more critical to the fetus’ well-being. Will it be born into a world of abundance or scarcity? Will it feel protected or threatened? Will it feel wanted or unwanted?

One study found that early pregnancy elevations in cortisol (the stress hormone) were associated with a failure for fetuses to respond (measured by increased heart rate and movement) to later (week 25) cortisol increases. Thus, the fetus has learned to numb out or dissociate (detach) from stress.

However, later elevations in maternal cortisol predicted a larger response among fetuses when assessed closer to full term. In these cases, the fetus became over-aroused when later stressed.

The fetus is not skilled at tolerating stress (e.g., distress, hurt, fear, shame, and anger) and often responds by dissociating and repressing these toxic feelings. Studies show that the levels of fetal stress hormones and serotonin, the painkilling molecule (both used for the purpose of dissociation) increase during periods of stress.

When the mother is stressed, the fetus learns that the world is unsafe and will cope by withdrawing or by hyperactivity.

Besides obvious stress, maternal negative thoughts and feelings also impact the fetus. If the mother has a thought that, “You are the wrong gender,” “We can’t afford you,” or “You are causing me pain,” any of these emotionally charged messages are also communicated to the fetus.

Because the fetus is literally engulfed in the maternal physical and emotional environment, it integrates these maternal messages as its own. It is born with this imprinting which generally does not fade with time. Thus, the child becomes fixated by this initial and familiar emotional condition and acts upon these messages, re-enacting similar scenarios, in some cases in a repetition compulsive manner, throughout its life.

Fortunately, we can free ourselves of these false messages by becoming aware of any unhealthy default messaging throughout the day. By discovering these fallacies, we can literally rewire our brains by creating more benevolent emotional, behavioral, perceptual, and cognitive messages, ones we did not receive enough of (or at all) during our fetal (and in many cases, the rest of our formative years) time.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.