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Babies, Birth, Bonding, and Beyond – What’s Love Got to do With it?

Sally Dear Healy, Ph.D.

What does love have to do with babies, birth, bonding, and the rest of our lives? The answer is, quite a lot. In fact, love has the potential for impacting how we are conceived, how we experience pregnancy and birth, as well our ability to engage in successful relationships. Moreover, our capacity for love, or the lack thereof, can influence our behaviors and relationships for the rest of our lives, including the way we mother/parent. The crucial point is that the capacity for love begins long before the baby is even born, and some argue even prior to conception. What we know for sure is that we need to be paying more attention to ‘what’s love got to do with it?’ In the words of Michel Odent, “At a time when people are focusing on violence and the roots of violence, I am convinced that we can go a step further in our understanding . . .  by turning the question on its head and looking instead at how the capacity of love develops.”[1]  We will begin with a look at romantic love, or what would be the ideal environment for a new soul to be conceived.

In 1999, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco began looking at the biological basis for human attachment and bonding. Their research clearly showed that oxytocin is “associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people.”[2]  In addition, they reported that “In humans, oxytocin stimulates milk ejection during lactation, uterine contraction during birth, and is released during sexual orgasm in both men and women.” Last but not least, the research revealed that “Women who were currently involved in a committed relationship experienced greater oxytocin increases in response to positive emotions.” From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense since ideally a woman’s body and mind are stimulated in such a way as to promote a feeling of safety so she can welcome and nurture her child from conception on.

Conscious conception means approaching the moment of life’s beginning with all the attention it deserves. Moreover, the belief that conception can and should be ‘conscious’ is long- and well-supported. In 1986, Jeannine Parvati Baker’s seminal book Conscious Conception became a comprehensive reference that engaged an awareness far beyond the process of biological conception and engaged the belief that conception is far more than ‘just’ a physical act and biological process.[4] As an example, if a woman is open to conceiving, one of the most important things she can do is to open up her heart-uterus connection, again ideally prior to conception.  This is because when a woman becomes pregnant, a channel or line of communication opens between her ‘heart’ and that of her baby.  According to the Chinese, the ‘heart’ is the spirit’s ‘home’ and is associated with the heart center (chakra).  The heart chakra, or Anahata, is the center of love, balance, and connection and is responsible for regulating the energy associated with self-acceptance, self-love, compassion, openness, and unconditional love of others. Babies receive intuited feelings from their mother via this line of communication.

Carista Luminare-Rosen’s research shows that “Prenates can see, hear, feel, remember, taste, and think before birth.”[5] In other words, babies in the womb have the emotional and intuitive capabilities to sense their parents’ love, or lack thereof. Thus, we can argue if the spirit of the baby does not feel that the mother is ‘ready’ for conception then they will not initiate the relationship by coming to that mother at that time. The spirit of the baby may also determine that the womb is not a safe place, at least not at that time. While it may be difficult for mothers/parents to reconcile with the words of James Thurber, “He who hesitates is sometimes saved,” we cannot negate the possibility that babies do in fact make ‘choices’ about when they are conceived and who they chose as their mother.  The good news is that, as Huxley (1987) suggests, “Preparing for the moment of conception offers (women) the opportunity for a renewal of (their) perspective and existence.  Rather than being a random moment, lost in the events of ordinary life, conception can turn into the culmination of in-depth work on (herself) and (her) relationships.[4] The point of this process is to have a sense of self-love and a receptive love environment for the baby. This exploration and awareness can, and often does continue during pregnancy.

Back in 1978, Tarn Taran Kaur Khalsa established Conscious Pregnancy Training for German Kundalini Yoga teachers (Kundalini Yoga is the Yoga of Awareness).  Her intent was to explore a woman’s journey to motherhood including her self-identity, as well as her relationships and building her family culture through the birthing and postpartum process.[7] Since then numerous books and articles have been written about prenatal bonding, however, while the words “bonding,” “attachment,” and “connection” are used widely and interchangeably, few if any actually mention or engage the word love, nor is the word “love” found in the Index.  This was surprising but not unexpected.  More concerning is the fact that a search for “love and pregnancy” focused on topics such as “10 Fun Date Ideas for Pregnant Moms and Partners,” “5 Ways Pregnancy Will Change Your Relationship,” and “15 Things Men Absolutely Love About Pregnant Women,” while others focused on teen pregnancy.[8] What is most important is that mothers and babies feel and experience love during the pregnancy.[9] This will allow babies to receive the message that the uterine environment is both physically and emotionally safe, which in turn prepares them for birth.  Accordingly, Nathanielsz (2001) argues that “The right kind of environment will allow (the woman/mother) to offer the right kinds of messages to (their) child so that, at birth, he is already well along the most healthy developmental path.”[10]

We would hope that the feeling and experience of blissful love is automatically present when a woman gives birth and a new life enters this world, but rarely expand this expectation beyond the birthing woman/couple and their baby to include the love or loving feelings of a care provider toward their patient/client, and even towards themselves.  While some OB’s claim that they “love what they do for a living,” and “treasure the relationships (they are) able to be a part of with each of their patients,” other than few vague references to midwives, I found no mention in the research of a care provider being taught to or purposefully communicating feelings of love towards the woman, her  baby, or the birthing environment, let alone purposely creating a space where this kind of love flourish.  In other words, mothering/parenting should ideally embrace a purposeful conveyance of love and the mindful creation of a space where love can flourish.

What does appropriate care look like in the first few years of life?  Lots and lots of love!  According to Schore (2014), “Optimal attachment scenarios allow for the development of a right-lateralized system of efficient activation and feedback inhibition of the HPA axis and autonomic arousal.”[11] Unfortunately many of today’s parenting advice focuses more on the needs of the parents instead of the needs of the baby/child.  As an example, on the website Love and Logic, in an article titled “End the bedtime Blues” (J. Fay), parents are admonished to “stick to (their) guns” when it comes to putting children to bed.  If the child “resorts” to saying they are frightened, or that there are “monsters in their room,” Fay argues that parents should respond by saying “Well, sweetie, my advice is to make friends with them.  See you in the morning.  I love you,” and walk out the door. Now imagine how this scenario plays out when the infant/child is not developmentally ready for separation.  While the spectrum of research on love and healthy human development is far beyond the scope of this article, what is most important to remember is that oxytocin is produced naturally when we love, are loved, nurture another, give selflessly, or engage in affectionate touch.”  The love invested early on will pay huge dividends later on.

In fact, the impact of oxytocin extends far beyond the time of birth and early parenting.  For example, the article “The role of oxytocin in psychiatric disorders: A review of biological and therapeutic research findings” (Cochran, 2013), looked at oxytocin as “an important regulator of human social behaviors, including social decision making, evaluating and responding to social stimuli, mediating social interactions, and forming social memories.”[12] What this review discovered is that “oxytocin is intricately involved in a broad array of neuropsychiatric functions, and may be a common factor important in multiple psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders.”  More specifically, “while there is less evidence for a clear dysfunction in the oxytocin system in patients with schizophrenia,” some studies suggest that “there may be a dysfunction in oxytocin processing associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and that there may be developmental changes associated with the oxytocin system over the lifespan of individuals with ASD.”  Moreover, with regards to epigenetics, “Even when there is no direct genetic evidence of alterations in oxytocin-related genes, the expression of these genes may be affected by epigenetic modification and provide a different mechanism for oxytocin’s role in the clinical phenotype of ASD.”

Going back to Cochran’s study and the impact of oxytocin as an important regulator of human social behaviors, it is worth noting that Allan N. Schore (2017), looked at the psychoneurobiological mechanisms that underlie the vulnerability of the developing male.  His findings showed that “stress-regulating circuits of the male brain mature more slowly than those of the female in the prenatal perinatal, and postnatal critical period,” “developing males are more vulnerable over a longer period of time to stressors in the social environment (attachment trauma),” and that there is an “increased vulnerability of males to autism, early onset schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and conduct disorders.”[13] These results are of considerable interest given that in November (2018), the National Survey of Children’s Health updated the CDC figures of 1 in 59 children in the U.S. with a diagnosis of autism[14] to roughly 1 in 40 having a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.  It is also notable that autism in boys, reported by the CDC to be 4 times more common than in girls, was updated to reveal that boys were (only) 3.5 times as likely to be diagnosed when compared to girls.[15] Instead of the cultural emphasis of “toughening up” boys by treating them differently than girl babies, literally from birth on, we should instead be taking a more dedicated look at the psychoneurobiological mechanisms that impact development and treat all infants with tender, responsive care so that they can experience secure attachment.  As Shore concludes, “In light of the male infant’s slower brain maturation, the secure mother’s attachment-regulating function as a sensitively responsive, interactive affect regulator of his immature right brain in the first year is essential to optimal male socioemotional development.”

In light of the research on the connection between love, oxytocin expression, as well as  the short- and long-term impacts on infant/human well-being, it is clear that love is  likely to be one of the most crucial elements in the process, beginning with preconception and extending at least through the first few years of an infant/child’s life.  Moreover, we must begin with loving the pregnant and birthing woman, her baby, and her partner – on the birth day, and every day.

[1] Odent, M. (2014). The Scientification of Love.  London: Free Association Books.

[2] Turner, R., Altemus, M., Enos, T., & McGuinness, T. Psychiatry Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 62(2):97-113.

[3] Turner, R., Altemus, M., Enos, T., & McGuinness, T. Psychiatry Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 62(2):97-113.

[4] Parvati Baker, J., Baker, F., & Slayton, T. Conscious Conception: Elemental Journey Through the Labyrinth of Sexuality. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

[5] Luminare-Rose, C. (2000). Parenting Begins Before Conception: A Guide to Preparing Body, Mind, and Spirit for You and Your Future Child.  Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

[6] Huxley, L. (1987). The Child of Your Dreams. Minneapolis, MN: CompCare Publishers.

[7] https://www.tarntarankaur.com/

[8] One notable exception is Elizabeth Nobel’s book Primal Connections: How our Experiences from conception to birth influence our emotions, behavior, and health (1993), which not only mentions love in the Index, it cross-references the listing with “heart.”

[9] One of the songs in the BirthWorks trainings asks, “What can we do to bring her love, on the birth day, and every day?”

[10] Nathanielsz, P. (2001). The Prenatal Prescription. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[11] Schore, A. (2014). Early interpersonal neurobiological assessment of attachment and autistic spectrum disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 5:1049. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01049

[22] Cochran, D., Fallon, D., Hill, M, and Frazier, J. (2013). The role of oxytocin in psychiatric disorders: A review of biological and therapeutic research findings.  Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 21(5):219-247.

[13] Schore, A. (2017) “All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk. Journal of Infant Mental Health, 38(1):15-52.

[14] Centers for Disease Control (2018). Data and Statistics: Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov

[15] Kogan et al. (2018). The prevalence of parent-reported autism spectrum disorder among US Children. Journal of Pediatrics, 142(6).

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The Impact of Fear, Stress and Anxiety during Pregnancy and Birth on Women and Infants

Sally Dear Healy, Ph.D.

by Sally Dear-Healey, Ph.D., PPNE, CCE (BWI), CD (BWI), TICP

Research shows that “both psychosocial stress and pregnancy-specific stresses can have marked effects on pregnancy, maternal health, and human development across the lifespan.”  Moreover, both animal and human studies suggest that activation of what is referred to as the “maternal stress response” and resulting changes in endocrine and inflammatory activity can span generations.  This is considered an epigenetic influence (Coussons-Read, 2013).[1]  Additionally, fear of childbirth can increase the number of unnecessary cesarean births, especially those which are elective (Aksoy et al., 2014).[2] Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that moms with clinical anxiety are at increased risk for postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.

It is not unusual, nor is it always unhealthy, to fear something we have no experience with or know little to nothing about.  In fact, Carleton (2016)[3] argues that “fear of the unknown may be a, or possibly the, fundamental fear.” While the term xenophobia is often correlated with fear and hatred of strangers, it also is correlated with the fear of anything that is strange or foreign.  For many women, and men, birth, and especially birth in a hospital is a ‘strange and foreign’ land for which there is no travel guidebook, and often no designated and/or reliable guide.  Moreover, the “us” and “them” aspects of xenophobia clearly play out as beliefs and prejudices develop around certain birth practices, including but not limited to place of birth, type of care provider, the mode of birth, and beliefs and behaviors around early infant care. These beliefs can be embodied by women, their partners, as well as their care givers and differences are often a source of anxiety, stress, or fear- which can be counterintuitive in pregnancy and birth.

Tokophobia, a term first identified by Dr. Kristina Hofberg in 2000, is defined as “A pathological fear of pregnancy (which) can lead to avoidance of childbirth.  It can be classified as primary or secondary.  Primary is morbid fear of childbirth in a woman, who has no previous experience of pregnancy.  Secondary is morbid fear of childbirth developing after a traumatic obstetric event in a previous pregnancy” (Bhatia and Jhanjee, 2012).[4]  Fear and anxiety are inextricably linked, and both can produce a stress response in both the mother and her baby.  Let’s unpack what this means for birthing women today.

Many women today fear pregnancy or birth, or both.  An article in the Journal of Perinatal Education suggests that one of the reasons women today are so fearful of birth has to do with its negative portrayal in the mainstream media.  The author provides examples of how these influences, as well as the way hospital births today are “managed” with technology and ‘fear-based’ attitudes can single-handedly convince most women that their bodies are incapable of birthing without major medical intervention and that they would be crazy not to want all the technology they can get their hands on.”[5]   In other words, their fears are often generated by what they have seen, heard, or experienced.  They may also be generational in the sense that they are “old” memories of the experiences of our mothers and grandmothers.[6 ]  The fear itself may be conscious or unconscious.  Either way, as we have already acknowledged, fear not only impacts the woman/mother, it impacts the yet-to-be-born and newborn infant.

While some stress is normal and considered to be healthy, and most people return to balance after a stressful experience, constant or chronic stress and the inability to regulate can have both short- and long-term negative impacts, sometimes referred to as fetal programming.[7]  For example, among other things, constant stress alters the body’s stress management system, causing it to overreact and trigger an inflammatory response.  According to Ann Borders, MD, MPH, MSc, “There are some data to show that higher chronic stressors in women and poorer coping skills to deal with those stressors may be associated with lower birth weight and with delivering earlier.”  She adds that “Chronic stress may also contribute to subtle differences in brain development that might lead to behavioral issues as the baby grows.”[8] Additional research by Myatt (2006) shows that “Untreated, significant, and ongoing antenatal anxiety exposes the fetus to excess glucocorticoids, which may influence the fetus’s susceptibility to enduring neuroendocrine changes.”[9] This is especially troubling as research by Bhatia and Jhanjee (2012) shows that between 20% and 78% of pregnant women report fears associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

While screening for fear, anxiety, and stress – as well as depression – should be incorporated into every woman’s prenatal care, or as those in the field of prenatal and perinatal psychology suggest even prior to conception, obstetricians don’t regularly, or adequately screen for them.  This may be because it is assumed that pregnant women must be happy or because women feel ashamed to bring it up.[10]  And, while treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or psychopharmacology can be very effective for the treatment of anxiety disorders, we can also effectively argue that practices such as conscious conception, pregnancy, and birth – as well as having a positive mental attitude – can have a positive influence.[11]  Additional benefits can be realized through relaxed breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and changing over from less healthy thinking patterns to healthier ones that focus on strengths-building and positive states of mind.  In turn, mothers and babies can have a more positive and less fearful and anxious experience of pregnancy and birth, which sets the stage for bonding, attachment, and greater physical and emotional health for mothers and babies.

[1] Coussons-Read, M.E. (2013). Effects of prenatal stress on pregnancy and human development: mechanisms and pathways. Obstetric Medicine. 6(2): 52-57.

[2] Aksoy, M, Aksoy, A., Dostbil, A., Celik, M. and Ince I. (2014). The relationship between fear of childbirth and women’s knowledge about painless childbirth. Obstetrics and Gynecology International. 274303. doi: 10.1155/2014/274303.

[3] Carleton, R.N. (2016). Into the unknown: A review and synthesis of contemporary models involving uncertainty. Review. Journal of Anxiety Disorders.  Vol. 39: 30-43.

[4] Bhatia, M. S. & Jhanjee, A. (2012). Tokophobia: A dread of pregnancy.  Industrial Psychiatry Journal. Jul-Dec; 21(2):158-159.

[5] Lothian, J.A. and Grauer, A. (2003). “Reality” Birth: Marketing Fear to Childbearing Women.  The Journal of Perinatal Education. 12(2): 6-8.

[6] Those who have given birth at home often experience a model of birth that has been shown to reduce the incidence of birth injury, trauma, and medical interventions which in turn decreases the fear and subsequent stress response(s).

[7] “Fetal programming occurs when the normal pattern of fetal development is disrupted by an abnormal stimulus or ‘insult’ applied at a critical point in in utero development.  This then leads to an effect, which manifests itself in adult life” (https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/jphysiol.2006.104968).

[8] https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/stress-marks#1

[9] Myatt, L. Placental adaptive responses and fetal programming.  The Journal of Physiology. Vol. 572: 25-30.

[10] Rope, K. (2019). How to Cope with Anxiety and Depression During Pregnancy.  Parents.com. https://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-life/emotions/coping-with-anxiety-and-depression-during-pregnancy/

[11] It should be acknowledged that in some cases women need to take medication, however it is currently unclear whether and to what extent these medications impact the infant while still in the womb and during breastfeeding.  In addition, “Information of mixed quality in lay media, stigma, and fear may lead women to decline effective pharmacological treatment, take less than the recommended dose; or stop treatment prematurely, which may lead to discontinuation symptoms, relapse of underlying anxiety, and even suicidal ideation” (See Einarson, A. and Selby, P. (2001). Abrupt discontinuation of psychotropic drugs during pregnancy: Fear of teratogenic risk and impact of counseling. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. Vol. 26: 44-48 and Gawley, L. and Bowne, A. (2011). Stigma  and attitudes towards antenatal depression and antidepressant use during pregnancy in healthcare students. Advances in Health Science Education. 16(5): 669-679).

The Impact of Fear, Stress and Anxiety during Pregnancy and Birth on Women and Infants