“The embryo is the human being expressing itself.”
Jaap Van Der Wal, MD
“I think I can feel my baby move,” Whitney said, her dewy blue eyes wide with anticipation. Her voice rose at the end, turning her sentence into a query. She was a few weeks shy of the second trimester of her second successful pregnancy. Exuberantly curious, she sought validation for her awareness. Whitney was more confident with this baby than her first, but on the issue of whether or not she in fact could detect her baby’s movement, she was uncertain.
The delivery of Whitney’s first child was by caesarean section. At the time, and now in retrospect, she questioned the procedure. It had evoked a prolonged and recurring experience of loss. She knew that she wanted to deliver her second child vaginally, and that her doctor would object.
These were the thoughts dancing in Whitney’s mind when she inquired about feeling movement. She pushed them aside to be attentive for her doctor’s response.
“No, that’s not possible. It’s probably just gas,” Dr. Carlson said, with a sweet, preoccupied smile.
Whitney genuinely liked her doctor. She knew that Dr. Carlson was a good physician, and that she too was a mom. Dr. Carlson had returned to her career after the birth (by caesarean) of her own daughter. Whitney, on the other hand, had gone from being a successful businesswoman with a top salary to being a full-time mom. She loved it! It was not Dr. Carlson’s professionalism or commitment that troubled Whitney; it was what she suspected Dr. Carlson did not know about a mother’s capacity to feel her connection to prenatal life and development.
Whitney had learned how to be sensitive to her body and to her own feelings since becoming a mother. She had also made it her job to learn about the latest discoveries in embryology. Ironically, her baby’s caesarean delivery was the impetus for her increased awareness. It had catapulted her into a passionate quest for the truth about early life, her own as well as her children’s. She was disturbed by the air of secrecy blowing around the cloak of authority that she encountered in the medical world.
Whitney had also learned the essential parenting practice of sorting her feelings and sensations until she understood their frequently hidden meanings. This was the route to self-empowerment. She was reclaiming what she felt she had lost during the delivery of her first child.
She knew she was looking for supportive mirroring from Dr. Carlson about her baby’s movement, but when she did not get it, she reflected on this instead of reacting to it.
Moments later Whitney determined that only she could address her uncertainty about her baby’s movement. When she inquired inside, the answer was definitely, yes, she could feel her baby move. In her first pregnancy, she would have accepted her doctor’s response. Having traversed the painful territory of post-partum depression that she now correlated specifically with the unnecessary caesarean, Whitney had become much more confident in her feminine wisdom. She could honor her hormonally endowed attunement to herself and her child. She was alert to her own tendency to collude in an institutionalized disempowerment of mothers.
As she reflected further on Dr. Carlson’s response, Whitney wondered what kind of relationship she could have with a doctor who did not trust a mother’s experience. Whitney dialogued with her unborn child. Silently, but with passion, she said to her baby, “I recognize your movement and I love it! I’m sorry I was not more confident earlier.” Her baby moved, subtly but clearly, spreading out, stretching with relief in utero.
“The growing gestures of the embryo and the fetus are the gestures of the soul.”
Dr. Erich Blechschmidt
“Movements of the embryo and fetus are a fundamental expression of early neural activity,” says embryologist Jan Nijhuis in his groundbreaking book Fetal Behavior. “The fetus of 8-10 weeks post-menstrual age moves spontaneously in utero under normal circumstances.”
Prenatal movement in the first trimester, and then the patterns of movement that form in the second trimester, are the expression of the developing baby’s nervous system. This primary neurological unfolding is nourished and enhanced by parental awareness, dialogue and subtle touch on the mother’s body that communicates to the baby. The entire family can participate in this encouragement. The knowledge of how to do this is inherent in each of us. It is part of the magnificent design of the human being. Excellent education is now available to stimulate and sustain this natural wisdom. Awakening to, trusting and acting upon our innate human connection is the joy of parenthood.
Prenatal movement is preparation for neonatal activity. It is also warm-up for the marathon of labor and delivery. It is designed to result in the baby’s thrilling victory of entry into the arms of a world already sensed and perceived.
Movement patterns in prenates are replicated in neonates, demonstrating the continuity of neural behavior. The human fetus sleeps, breathes moves, eliminates, and feels, sees, cries, initiates and responds. He or she is acutely sensitive, as a result of constantly expanding neurological capacities, to the surrounding environment and its vicissitudes.
The prenate communicates its experiences the only way it can: through motility. Eye movement, heart-rate, respiration, gestures, and elimination patterns speak volumes about the individual prenatal world. The patterns that these expressions make, when attended to, add texture to our understanding of the quality of prenatal life. They also give us our first insights into who the unique being is within its mother’s body.
Regularity of movement can be a sign of health whereas deceleration or lack of movement can signal distress or concern. Certain fetal movements may convey discomfort. By noticing movements or their absence, the family can come to know its new arrival and begin, well before birth, to integrate the baby into the family. Prenatal consciousness is neurologically organized to be present, alert and receptive. The unborn baby delights in recognition.
Whitney had an unforgettable experience of this when she became ill during her second trimester. A terrible virus hit Whitney’s family hard. They were housebound and unable to function. The baby’s movement was significantly reduced until Whitney came out of her fevered trance.
“I know you are concerned,” Whitney said, as she lay in bed. “You are so caring and we are so connected to you. I am sorry I was too weak to include you, but now I want to reassure you. We will all get better soon. Don’t fret. I’ve been worried myself and that’s why I forgot to talk to you.”
By the next day Whitney felt movement in her womb again. The comforting rhythmic presence of this life she had welcomed in reminded her of how much she had missed contact with the newest addition to her family. As she recovered, Whitney felt she now knew more about the baby she was carrying. This child was engaged with all of them. She talked to her family about her discoveries. They acknowledged the compassion of their new arrival who became still so as not to further burden them. They were truly a family of four now.
WHO IS THE BABY IN UTERO?
“The human embryo is a coherent whole, a unity of form, shape and function, interacting with its environment.”
Jaap Van Der Wal, MD
The question of whom and what the baby in utero actually is and what he or she is capable of doing can best be answered by a respectful collaboration between scientists, parents and people who remember their own prenatal lives. Optimally, these three categories can be combined. Scientists, like me, who are passionate about the role and function of very early life in holistic healthcare, are building the case to demonstrate that prenatal life is, in fact, the basis of all health.
Immune function, structural development, spiritual wellbeing, relational health, confidence, and the capacity to respond to change and threat in a balanced way are all formed by what transpires in utero. Embryology bears this out. Of all the populations that will make the best use of this information, parents, I believe, are the most significant.
When we recognize the power and function of the precious formative primal period and educate broadly and appropriately about it, including educating youth who are the parents of the future, we will be making a decisive contribution to the continuity of civilization.
The personality of the unborn baby is present and engaged with its family from virtually the moment of conception, and some believe even before. The baby is not only interacting, he or she is a full time student, constantly learning and creating the blueprint for a lifetime of physical health, relationships and motivation. Honoring this can decisively shift disturbing trends in violence and disease.
COMMUNICATION IS THE ESSENCE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIP
“Embryology is an ongoing process. It is a lifetime of communication through the body, through movement, and through partnership.”
Stephanie Mines, Ph.D.
All relationships flourish with authentic and frequent communication. This is as true for prenates as it is for husband and wife, and for parents and children of all ages.
I am reminded of a story reported to me by a young friend who attended a conference where insights into prenatal health were discussed. He was inspired by what he heard. Soon after, he discovered that friends of his had been told that their baby was breach and that a caesarean was scheduled. This young man immediately went to their home, sat in front of the mother’s pregnant belly, and begged and pleaded with the baby to turn. He spoke with full commitment, faith and insistence. The baby turned and was delivered vaginally.
What does embryology say about the prenate’s ability to hear and respond to auditory communication?
Neonates as well as prenates, until relatively recently, were regarded as being deaf as well as mute. Beginning in 1977, however, research demonstrated that the fetus responds to sound from at least 12 weeks in utero and perhaps sooner. Certain sounds, like the mother’s heartbeat, elicit strong responses. The mother’s voice is decidedly heard, as well as the voices of others in the environment. This is supported by the discovery that neonates prefer the sound of their mother’s voice to other sounds.
Auditory sensory mechanisms begin developing during the fourth and fifth week in utero and continue to completion by about the 25th week. At the early stages, however, the baby can hear. A study involving invasive sound at less than 24 weeks of gestation revealed that after hearing a loud and shrill noise that evoked initial dramatic fetal movement, the fetus stopped responding completely. The overwhelming invasion resulted in fatigue and collapse. The fetus learned it was powerless to stop the invasion. The method of the study disturbs me but I hope we will learn from this and stop such painful experiments. However, we can take this knowledge and use it to protect our own prenates from auditory assault!
“The fetal environment is not one of sensory deprivation as was previously believed, but rather one of richness. There is little doubt that the fetus does learn whilst in the womb.”
Dr. Frank Hepper
Visual information, like sound, is mediated by the mother’s body. Through her, the fetus watches events unfold, and has the ability to associate these events. In addition, the retention of prenatal learning (such as identification of the mother’s voice and the neonate’s ability to choose the mother’s voice from the voices of others), indicates that there is memory in utero. This memory influences later social interactions that rely on attunement to others. What the prenate learns promotes or discourages later bonding and attachment.
How do babies reveal their memories post-natally? Long term studies conducted by Italian psychologist Alessandra Piontelli and published in her book From Fetus to Child show that babies who are frightened and insecure in utero and who demonstrate this through their behavioral states, do the same thing at five years of age and older. Memories are displayed in relationships, play, illnesses, sleep patterns and dreams. Children rely on their parents to pay attention to these expressions and help them to understand what they mean.
Whitney’s experience of her first son’s memories of his caesarean birth supports this theory. In the midst of storytelling, Timmy said “Will our new baby have to wait to come out instead of pushing, the way I did, Mommy?” At first Whitney stared at her son in amazement, and then she acknowledged his wisdom, just as she had learned to acknowledge her own.
“Was waiting hard for you?” she asked her son. “It was very hard,” Timmy replied. “I don’t want my baby to have to wait.” “OK,” Whitney said, “I’ll do my best so there will be no waiting this time.”
My own second daughter’s accusation, when she was twelve years old, that I “really wanted a boy” (a truth I had almost forgotten) is my personal substantiation of the prenatal capacity to experience, to know, and to remember.
BIRTH: THE FULFILLMENT OF PRENATAL LEARNIG AND EMBRYOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT
“It is the fetal nervous system that integrates all kinds of sensory and physiological information to judge when it is time to be born.”
Lise Eliot, Ph.D.
Whitney learned how her child’s embryological behavioral states continued into the birthing process when she went into labor. The process slowed just when it should have intensified, causing even her midwife to consider going to the hospital. It was deja vu for Whitney and her family. Everyone was recalling Dr. Carlson’s cautionary words when the family declared their intention to deliver at home. “Vaginal deliveries after caesareans are not recommended,” she had said, sternly.
“It’s OK,” Whitney told her family and midwife, turning the tables on her team. Weren’t they supposed to be reassuring her?
“My baby is just concerned,” she declared, smiling. “We need to have a conversation.” Her body provided Whitney with the truth she trusted. Her baby could and would decide the time of birth.
Whitney closed her eyes and commenced an internal dialogue in which she encouraged her child to continue to journey forward and inquired about what the difficulty might be. Her communion was a show stopper for everyone.
“What’s he saying?” Timmy blurted out, unable to control himself. He had always known he had a brother in there!
“He says that he doesn’t know if we will have time for him because we are all so busy. He’s not sure we really want him,” Whitney said softly, looking directly at her husband.
“Is that just you talking?” Blake asked, dumfounded.
“He’s been listening, watching and learning,” Whitney answered, her face radiant in the greatest certainty she had ever known.
“OK,” Blake said, tears streaming down his face. “I’ll spend more time at home. I really want to.” By this time he was sobbing.
The baby’s response was the biggest contraction Whitney had ever felt. Within thirty minutes their baby was born. They named him Micah, the merciful messenger.