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Early  Parenting

by   Dr. David B. Chamberlain

Editor of APPPAH's website
(APPPAH is the Assoc. of Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health)

What is Early Parenting?

In our culture, the majority opinion is that parenthood starts after birth. This view has been fostered by medical scientists who define a baby as physical matter, especially brain matter, which they believe is insufficient to register or process memory, learning, trauma, emotion, or any truly human experiences until months after birth. This effectively excludes the period of life in the womb from active parenting. Hence, we have a widely-shared cultural delusion that "early" parenting begins after the child is born.

Considering all we know today about the realities of life before birth, we are obliged to set back the clock of parenthood. The new facts plead for parental involvement and participation in the matrix of intimate interactions in the womb. Parents are creators and creating starts very early, ideally before the conception itself, when "quality control" efforts can spare the baby from a lifetime of sickness or handicap. Just one example from recent research: When fathers are cigarette smokers, they damage their sperm and pass to their offspring a higher risk of childhood cancer. As many as 15% of childhood cancers could be due to smoking by fathers. The cancer risk is proportional to the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Parent smoking also plays a role in sudden infant death syndrome and in production of smaller babies. How many mothers and fathers would deliberately create cancer in their children if they knew how to avoid it?

Creating is what early parenting is about--creating a physical body and brain, creating emotional foundations for living, and establishing a rich connection with the prenatal self.

1. Creating a Physical Body

Parents provide the immediate physical environment which will determine whether the baby's equipment for living will be poor, average, or optimal. As the foundations for physical life are laid, each new part is built upon the previous one so that both limitations and advantages are preserved. Although some degree of "plasticity" is possible during later development, the original parts are never replaced.

Parents who wait to think about this until after their child is born will be starting too late-nine months after all the basic equipment has been constructed. In the late 20th century, parents face hazards of reproduction which are both old and new. These include bacteria and viruses (which usually become a problem when we are not in good health), nutritional deficiencies, a torrent of industrial chemicals, ever-present stimulants and sedatives like nicotine, caffein, and alcohol, tempting "street" drugs like opiates and amphetamines, drugs prescribed by physicians, electromagnetic radiation from electric blankets, and even overuse of ultrasound when its purpose is entertainment at obstetrical office visits. Because of so much environmental disruption, the safety and sanctity of the womb has been forever changed. (For more details, See WombSafe, Part I).

A mother's diet can be a factor in birth defects. Science has only slowly found a connection between deficiencies of folic acid (one of the B vitamins) and the profound malformations of anencephaly and spina bifida, defects which occur when the neural tube fails to close 18 to 26 days after conception. If the error occurs at the top end of the tube, the baby will be born without a brain. If the lower section fails to close, the child is born with an open spine, a condition which usually means living in a wheelchair or on crutches. Famine creates a variety of birth defects. Long-term studies of children born to mothers who were starved in early pregnancy show damage to the mechanisms of appetite control and growth regulation, resulting in obesity in the offspring. Famines produce increased rates of diabetes and schizophrenia, partly through zinc deficiency which contributes to both diseases.

Sub-optimal nutrition, one of the factors behind the plague of low-weight babies, means shortages of essential supplies during brain construction resulting in a sub-optimal brain. In the modern urban environment, estrogenic compounds flow freely and impact sexual development. Hormonal deficiencies, excesses, and imbalances effect both genes and environment to determine sexual identity and orientation--before the baby is born.

2. Creating Emotional Foundations

One of the biggest surprises about life in the womb is the extent of emotional involvement and expression, none of which was anticipated in psychology or medicine. The spontaneity and gracefulness of movement from about 10 weeks after conception is a vehicle for self-expression including early aspects of self-control, expression of needs and interests, and of protest against uncomfortable experiences. By 15 weeks, ultrasound reveals babies moving in reaction to something as simple as a mother's laugh or cough. Unexplainable reactions to amniocentesis include aggressive action toward the barrel of the needle, suggesting far more self-protection, self-assertion, and expression of fear and anger than previously thought possible.

With precocious development of hearing and tasting before 16 weeks gestational age, the way is open for extensive interaction with mothers and fathers during pregnancy. Ultrasound imaging of twins reveals totally unexpected social relations and expressions of feeling manifested by repeated hitting, kicking, kissing, or playing together. Life in the womb-now that we can observe it-bears little resemblance to the lazy world previously hypothesized in which a baby was virtually deaf, dumb, and blind.

As it is with the establishment of physical settings in utero, the emotional system is also organizing itself in relation to the types of experiences encountered. A baby surrounded with anger, fear, and anxiety will adjust itself to that world and carry those settings into life. Patterns of fearful reaction already visible via ultrasound before birth are replicated after birth. The emotional sensitivity of the fetus is one big reason why adoption is not just an experience for parents: Although apparently safe in the womb, the baby can be having emotional disturbances, can feel rejected, and can arrive in the world carrying unconscious baggage of anxiety and uncertainty about its identity and connections.

3. Establishing a Rich Connection with the Prenate

Not long ago we did not think prenates could have any significant experiences. We didn't see how they could have a working mind. In retrospect, our false beliefs about the brain obscured the fact that babies in the uterine world were indeed having experiences, establishing patterns of interaction, listening to music and conversation (and as tests ultimately proved) were remembering them. Numerous experiments have made it clear that prenates who have the opportunity to hear stories and music repeated to them in utero can demonstrate recognition for this material later. Prenates have become familiar with and show a preference for specific lullabies, musical themes like "Peter and the Wolf," "Mary had a little Lamb," and theme music from television soap operas.

Prenates memorize the voices of their mothers and fathers in utero while learning the basic features of their native language, the "mother" tongue, as we say. Spectrographic analysis of voice and cry sounds as early as 26 weeks of gestation show how far babies of this age have already progressed in adopting the voice characteristics of the mother. In a recent experiment, mothers repeated a children's rhyme daily for four weeks from week 33 to 37 in utero. Tested at 37 weeks while still inside, the babies reacted with a change of heartbeat to the familiar rhyme, but not to the unfamiliar rhyme. In other research, babies have demonstrated immediately after birth a preference for their mother's voice and their native language. The womb turns out to be a stimulating place and is, in many ways, a school.

In the last fifteen years as these facts were gradually becoming known, many books, tapes, and exercises were created to help parents understand and communicate with babies in the womb. All are potentially valuable in helping parents to make a creative and loving attachment (rather than an insensitive or aggressive one), a connection which respects the needs and limitations of the baby. Babies are naturally curious and interactive. There is no need for pushing and shoving.

Since about 1980, organized programs for parents have been developed and tested, revealing the benefits of carefully planned stimulation. (For details, see the section on Prenatal Stimulation.) By 1990, programs with sophisticated experimental designs and systematic testing were underway. The largest experiment in prenatal stimulation has taken place in Caracas, Venezuela under the direction of psychologist Beatriz Manrique, where six hundred families (divided into experimental and control groups) have been involved in an experiment which tested the babies for six years following their prenatal program. Test results revealed the advantages of prenatal stimulation in virtually every category over the entire time period including verification of superior auditory and speech development, motor skills, memory, and intelligence. Because of such positive results, the government of Venezuela has decided to make the program available throughout the country. At its international congress in 1995, the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) presented to Dr. Manrique the Thomas R. Verny Award for Outstanding Achievements in Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health.

These studies have proven what few believed in 1980: (1) That babies in the womb are alert, aware, and attentive to activities involving voice, touch, and music; (2) that babies benefit from these activities by forming stronger relationships with their parents and their parents with them making for better attachments and better birthing experiences, and (3) that these babies tend to show precocious development of speech, fine and gross motor performance, better emotional self-regulation, and better cognitive processing. These are the gifts of early parenting.

If you skipped this article's colored link to "Wombsafe:Part I", then you will find Part I at the bottom of this page. For further stimulating reading please visit APPPAH's website and the "Life Before Birth" department from which our Guest Column is extracted.

Here is the link to APPPAH's Home Page:

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Wombsafe: (Part I) - "Warnings"

In the Age of Chemistry, reproductive perils have multiplied. Modern parents face a cornecopia of chemicals which are generally invisible, but, nevertheless, reach them in the home, in the marketplace, and in the workplace. These have ominous names: carcinigens (chemicals that cross the placenta to promote childhood cancers); teratogens (chemicals that cause abortion, stillbirth, growth retardation, and birth defects; mutagens (chemicals that damage genes and chromosomes which carry genetic codes); and other toxic gases and radiations which reduce fertility.

Certain people are particularly at risk of damage from chemicals: firemen, painters, farmers, printers, electronic equipment operators, vehicle manufacturers, dentists, and dental assistants. In industrial societies, this list will undoubtedly have to expand to include more occupations and workplaces. Although there is zealous activity on the part of a small number of scientists, it would take an army of such scientists to do the necessary studies and to warn the public of the possible perils.

These unhealthy features of the modern environment present a challenge to couples who plan to have children, requiring of them greater knowledge, awareness, and discipline than parents in simpler times. Some dangers are in the external environment and reach us through the atmosphere, crops, and the water supply. Parents can make practical choices to reduce the influence of these pervasive threats. Other hazards are encountered where they are least expected, in a medical system which has made a large investment in chemicals for medicinal purposes, and in technology for diagnostic purposes, both of which can—ironically--threaten reproductive health and the well-being of babies.

Perhaps the most immediate threat to reproductive health is the behavior of the parents themselves. Like the threats already noted, parental pollution may be unintended, yet have profound effects on their babies. WombSafe will present information about each of these different avenues of pollution. The following books are major resource volumes gathering currently available information of vital importance to reproductive perils in the Age of Chemistry.


Drugs in Pregnancy and Lactation: A Guide to Fetal and Neonatal Risk (4th ed.).
G. G. Briggs, R.K. Freeman, J. Sumner and S.J. Yaffe (1994), Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

The Poisoned Womb: Human Reproduction in a Polluted World
John Elkington (1995), New York: Viking.

Protecting Your Baby-To-Be: Preventing Birth Defects in the First Trimester
Margie Profet (1995),. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Our Stolen Future: Are we Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story.
T. Colborn, D. Dumanoski and J. P. Myers (1996), New York: Dutton.

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