Securing the foundations of human connection before birth
Creative imagination enriches our resources and, under favourable social circumstances, enables us to use them. It enables a pregnant couple to nourish a relationship with their developing baby. Imagining a relationship with the unborn baby changes the representation of pregnancy, with the perception of the baby as a sentient being rather than an inert organism. These processes shape a prenatal mother - baby attachment leading to emotional availability. Emotionally available parent-child relationships are a good indicator of the quality of interaction and supportive of child health and development (Barfoot et al., 2017). We know that long before birth, the quality of a mother’s prenatal attachment towards her unborn baby is essential for development (Branjerdporn et al., 2016). This finding is supported by clinical evidence as well as millennia of indigenous maternal experiences. The meaningful interactions on which prenatal attachment is based provide an intersubjective ground as the material from which the mind is created. Studies suggest that our capacity to empathise with others may be mediated by embodied prenatal and perinatal mechanisms, that is by the activation of the sensorimotor circuits underpinning our own emotional and sensory experiences (Ammaniti & Gallese, 2014).
The other is present in the self-experience from conception - without the other there would be no self. Therefore, the prenatal self is a visceral self on which mental processes are built through an intimate communication between mother and baby and meaningful others. The body is the “very basis of human subjectivity” and we have to take bodily manifestations and wisdom much more seriously than we have so far (Shaw, 2004). The narrative of interactions with my preborn baby will show this entanglement of the body. To further sustain the function of prenatal engagement, findings consider the quality of foetal-maternal interactions as psychobiological precursors to adaptive infant development (Novak, 2004).
Alfred Tomatis describes the foetus’s sonorous experience, in particular listening to the maternal voice (its timbre, tone and emotional nuances) as an organiser of his hearing system and listening (1987). My work with mothers and infants and my first pregnancy experience led me to the insight that in-utero perception of meaningful music and maternal voice may play a role in child development. In particular, it may regulate the baby’s nervous system and muscle tensions and shape a rudimentary sense of rhythm through her sensorimotor responses to the melody. We know that the baby’s responses to sonorous stimulation are intentional and conscious, even though it is a rudimentary intentionality. The memory of sounds is also the memory of physical contact and energy in the womb, as sounds emit vibrations in the form of energy fields, especially if they have an emotional content.
The American psychologist Evelyn Thoman proved the social nature of interactions inside and outside the womb and how motion and emotion work in synchrony from prenatal life (Thoman & Graham, 1986). She documented the vital importance for premature babies to continue to be close to human stimulating rhythms, which they have developed within the womb. The Italian clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Gaetano Pérsico has written a book entitled La Ninna Nanna: Dall’Abbraccio Materno Alla Psicofisiologia Della Relazóme Umana (The Lullaby: from In-Arm Experience to the Psychophysiology of Human Relationship), describing how the quality of maternal holding, including her embodiment and forms of vitality (e.g. muscular tension) during pregnancy, contributes to shaping our physiology and future ability to self-regulate and deal with relationships (2002). '
Elementary mirroring mechanisms fostered by mother-baby intersubjectivity may play a role in children’s development and emotional attunement with their mothers long before birth (Ferrari et al., 2016). During a 33-week scan while I was listening to my favourite musical piece, my baby looked content, seeming to attentively perceive the music and tune into my emotional response to music. Observations suggest that when the unborn baby hears music, she responds to the maternal emotional response to it and the related biochemical mediators (Zimmer et al., 1982). Investigators have explored whether the propensity to socially interact and engage is already present before birth, suggesting that the unborn baby is a sentient being, responsive to maternal communications (Carter Castiello et al., 2010). Prosocial and love capacities emerge easily from companionship and care, where since conception the environment signals “all the way down” that the child is welcome (Emerson, 1996; Lake, 1979). This energy state is transferred to subsequent generations.
Clinical accounts argue that parents’ anxieties and stress may harm the vital intersubjective bonds, birth and development, suggesting that bonding before birth is vital for growth and development (Ammaniti & Gállese, 2014). It is plausible, if we consider the baby’s essential need for meaningful connection, that poor prenatal connection between mother and baby, along with pollutants contained in the air and processed food and nutrients deficiency, may be a contributing factor in the brain disorders responsible for autism spectrum disorders that affect an increasing number of children today. In the last decades, the mother-baby intimate space has weakened, mainly due to a technological stress-driven culture, with adverse consequences on prenatal attachment, birth outcome and maternal and infant health. This provides a foundation for assessing and improving prenatal attachment and intersubjective engagement through wisdom practice, or related mindfulness, to harness the power of our body-mind for personal transformation.
Scientific and clinical studies and insights provided by indigenous wisdom practices depict an unborn baby as a sentient being. This can change the way we relate to pregnant mothers and their developing babies. A more humane approach to pregnancy means using empathy, compassion and deep listening, so as to foster these right-brain to right-brain communication virtues in the mother and child.
By practising wisdom, we can re-sculpt our mental pathways and break free from the mental patterns that hold us back from living life, therefore pregnancy, birth and child caregiving to the fullest (Siegel, 2009). We can rewire our brain for greater happiness and well-being through our mind. Siegel argues that the connections between wisdom traditions, attachment theory, mindfulness practice and well-being and integrating the functions of the prefrontal cortex as a window into wisdom, kindness and compassion are striking. The functions of the prefrontal cortex are body-self regulation, attunement with others, emotional integration and balance, modulation of fear, flexibility of response, receptive attentiveness, engagement with life, insight, intuition, empathy and morality, all fostered by wisdom practice and all essential for healthy development (Siegel, 2007). Mindfulness practice expands our capacity for engagement, compassion, affective empathy, receptive attentiveness, relational attunement, imagination, sense of humanity, reciprocal communication, intersubjectivity in the moment, right-brain affective communication and emotional regulation. These are all age-old wisdom capacities that benefit prenatal attachment and the mother’s and child’s well-being.
Few things are as meaningful as conception, pregnancy and being a part of our children’s childhood because they concern the future of our humanity. What is the point of climbing the steps of our professional career having missed the enjoyment of pregnancy, or our children’s first steps? What is the point of being a famous businessman if your child doesn’t even know his father? What is the point of having a baby and sending him to nursery at the premature age of just a few months, depriving him of the meaningful one-to-one interactions and constant affectionate physical contact that make him a happy, positive contributor to his family and our society?
People may become so addicted to a certain way of life that it can be difficult and painful to change, and our governments do not help, as they are influenced by the mindset themselves. But we need to rediscover the ability to use our powers and mitigate the effects of trauma or cultural conditioning. We need to believe that change is possible through wisdom and mindfulness practices. We need to reclaim the joy of waking up every morning full of energy and exhilaration and decide to self-author our lives. We can then experience the ecstasy of an inspired pregnancy, birth and babyhood, hence an inspired life.
We need to live our children’s childhood with mindfulness joy and wonders. This is translated into a beneficial increase in our endorphins and oxytocin levels - our feel-good hormones - and the health of our cells (Lipton, 2015; Church, 2009). This has a collective resonance effect on our heart-related abilities. We need to take the time to attentively watch children grow and thrive. The best gift we can give our children is our empathic love. They need to feel more important than the fleeting rewards of our professional career. They need us to be fully present and connected with their experience rather than our minds to avoid being carried away by external instructions, fears or other effects of stress.