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Birth and the Importance of the Mother–Child Bond

The importance of the heart and the way specific neuro-peptides mediate specific emotional states goes far to explain why the heart-bond between mother and child is so significant. It may be that the electro-magnetic field of the mother’s heart affects the minute field of the baby’s heart.

The life of the body begins with our conception and birth into the world.

Birth as a calming experience

Our understanding of the formation and development of the embryo and foetus in the womb and the birth of a child has been enormously expanded by seeing this process described in books and on television. Medicine and science between them have revealed to us more and more of the miraculous growth of the foetus in the womb. In addition, the pioneering work of two remarkable men, Michel Odent and Frederick Leboyer, has emphasized the importance of the heart and the positive or negative impact on children’s instincts and emotions of the way they are brought into the world. In their approach to birth, water takes on the utmost importance, both for the mother prior and during birth and for the baby after birth. Odent, in his book, Water and Sexuality, shows how important the connection with water is for humans generally and how even a woman’s seeing a water bath in the delivery room can hasten and facilitate the delivery of her child.

Water-births as initiated by Michel Odent in his hospital at Pithiviers in France and introduced in hospitals the world over, offer mothers an unusual and calming experience, allowing them to enter into what he calls the primal adaptive process—where instincts and emotions are, as it were, fused with each other and where the momentous change taking place in both mother and baby can be allowed to unfold as the instinctive responses of the older primordial brain direct it.

We need, Odent says, a new word added to our vocabulary which embraces both emotion and instinct and which does not set up an artificial barrier between them.

The Newly born Baby

Leboyer’s graphic description of the acute pain, terror and distress that the newly born baby can experience if insensitively handled, held upside down by the feet, slapped on the buttocks, its eyes blinded by bright lights, its ears assaulted by loud voices, is deeply disturbing, the more so when this unconscious brutality is contrasted with the sensitive and gentle way a baby can be welcomed into a darkened, hushed atmosphere where there are no loud voices, bright lights or cold surfaces to terrify it.

In his book, Birth Without Violence, he writes: “We should,” he said, “be crying tears of shame, crying for our own blindness. The same blindness that made us think women had to suffer simply because we didn’t know any better.

Happily we no longer believe in the old saying: ‘in pain shall ye give birth.’  Isn’t it time to do for the child what we’ve been trying to do for the mother?”   He demonstrated that babies are incredibly sensitive and vulnerable: they can feel far more intensely than adults; they are conscious, sentient beings in the womb and at birth. Incredibly, not so long ago, babies (and animals) were thought to be incapable of feeling because they had not yet developed a conscious sense of self. Fortunately, these old attitudes are changing.

Leboyer advocated that the umbilical cord should not be cut immediately after birth, allowing the baby to adjust to the new experience of breathing through the cord as well as through the lungs until the cord stops beating, indicating that the lungs were ready to take over and that the cord could be cut. Immersing a baby in water after having placed him for a while on his mother’s warm body, gives him again the feeling of being weightless, as in the womb and this can soothe and calm him. Leboyer takes his insight into the effects of a traumatic birth further, connecting it with the aggressive patterns of behaviour in later life that reenact it; the pain and terror we experienced at birth is inflicted on others decades later in the acts of violence and terrorism that ravage the world:

The memory of birth and the terror that accompanies it remains in each one of us. But since it is so loaded with fear and pain, it lies dormant and totally repressed, like a dreadful secret at the bottom of our unconscious… How few of us are aware of how much unconscious fear there is in our lives! All this fear linked with the horror which is birth…It is as if the fear of death, the dark shadow that casts its gloom over our whole lives, is nothing but the unconscious memory of…the fear we felt when we were born.

In this, he is supported by the research of Stanislav Grof, as explained in his book Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy which brilliantly details the three stages of the perinatal experience and how they affect our lives.

Although the sensitive approach of these men to the birth of the child may not be fully realized in every hospital where currently there are not nearly enough mid-wives to care for mothers through the different stages of labour, nevertheless their ideas have had a profound influence on the way infants are handled when they emerge from the womb, making that emergence less of a traumatizing ordeal. There is a new emphasis on gentleness and on the primary need of the infant to bond with the mother’s body immediately after birth.

If their suggestions are followed, the infant’s feeling of intense bliss after the trauma of expulsion from the womb is transmitted to the heart from the older instinctive limbic brain.

The Consequences of Birth

The infant can experience these feelings of bliss in the womb prior to birth and in the first few moments of being reconnected with the mother after birth, in close sensory contact with her touch, her voice, her smell and her facial expressions, and these sensory experiences continue throughout infancy. This original visceral experience can lay the foundation of later feelings of trust in life, the capacity for empathy and love, and the ability to feel joy, ecstasy and delight. It is in the first minutes, hours, days and months of an infant’s life that the heart and the nervous system can be programmed to a fulfilled and happy life or, conversely, to an anxiety-laden, difficult and even tragic one. Abandonment by the mother or her inability to love her child are two of the greatest traumas an infant or small child can experience. Early adoption by loving foster parents can go far to diminish the effects of the grief and profound distress the infant feels. The current delays in the adoption process are disastrous for the instinctive needs of an infant who has been taken away from his mother and has no-one to bond with.

We now know that the foetus in the womb registers everything the mother is experiencing: her happiness and delight in her growing baby or her fear and anxiety. We know that the development of the nervous system, the heart and the developing cognitive functions of the brain can be positively or negatively affected by her serene or stressed state. We know the foetus can be affected by the quality of the mother’s nutrition or lack of it, as well as by alcohol, smoking and drugs and also by tension and violence in the parental relationship. We know it is sensitive to music, loud noise and the quality of the environment the mother is experiencing.

The mother’s empathic response to her infant

We are born with 100 billion neurons in our brain connected by a hundred trillion synapses (this number may change as we learn more and also more about the neurons in the heart). From three to ten months a culling takes place with the loss of 50,000 connections between brain cells every second. Cells that are not used during this time die. Every cell has several branchings off it called dendrons. The more the cells are used the more connecting dendrons develop. They develop complexity and increase by use. The mother’s empathic response to her infant in its early months and years is vital to the development of these dendrons. Care and bonding with the mother or primary carer help the cells and dendrons to become active during the crucially important first ten months. If care and love are absent or deficient, they will not be activated.

The first three years of life are the most important for the future emotional and mental development of the child. Until the age of three to five years, the neural connections between the older limbic brain, the heart and the frontal lobes of the neo-cortical brain are not fully established. Until then, we live through the reflexes of the limbic brain and through purely instinctual (unconscious) behaviour, assimilating sounds, sights and encounters with people and our environment at a phenomenal rate. If there is insufficient verbal and sensory stimulus in these years, we will not be able to develop to the optimum level of which we are capable at birth.

Our natural instinct is to reach out to people and respond to them, to explore through the senses everything that surrounds us.

Between three and five years the neo-cortical level of the brain and the frontal lobes become activated and we begin to develop a sense of self and to differentiate between ourselves and our environment. The memories associated with the older brain during the earliest years gradually become ‘unconscious’. Yet these earliest memories, imprinted on the older brain and held in the limbic brain and the heart’s memory field, have immense power to influence our lives and our behaviour. A wound to the instinct in these early years can affect our lives in negative ways to the end of our days unless and until we become aware of them.

Constant anxiety and distress in infancy

Study after study has shown that emotional and physical abuse of the mother-to-be affects the neuronal circuits (nervous system) of the child she is carrying and that the abandonment, neglect or abuse of the infant and small child can alter the balance of its neural chemistry and programme it to depression or to violent and criminal behaviour later on. It has been found that the brain and nervous system of children traumatized by their experiences in a dysfunctional home exhibit the same patterns of functioning as those of war veterans suffering from PTSD. When constant anxiety and distress are experienced in infancy, the adrenal glands produce a high level of the stress hormone cortisol and this upsets or disturbs the optimal formation and equilibrium of the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, as well as interfering with the neural connections between the heart, the two hemispheres of the brain and the frontal lobes. The higher brain centres may be unable to develop due to the stress of constant anxiety. The heart, as explained above, is the primal organ of the whole bodymind organism. When the heart is deeply distressed and cannot function in an optimal way this affects the hormonal, immune and autonomic nervous systems and all the other organs of the body. Children who have been subjected to a chronically abusive environment grow up to be hyper-vigilant of other people’s moods and body language as a protective measure. They sense changes in mood, or a subtle inflexion in the voice or body language long before others do. This hyper-vigilance affects every system in the body, programming it to live in a state of constant arousal.

Damage to the heart and the nervous system can endure throughout our lives with no way of healing it if we are not aware of it.

We need to ask whether the rise in violent crime as well as the bullying and aggressive behaviour that is increasingly apparent in our culture at all levels does not in part originate in foetal and infant distress, contributing to the later disorientation and distress of the adolescent in a brutal and uncaring environment and therefore to the arousal of the most aggressive survival instincts and the curtailment of the neo-cortical skills of emotional intelligence and the ability to contain and manage anger.

The increasing tendency to put infants and toddlers into nursery school at a very early age may have a negative effect on their emotional development because they are deprived of the unique emotional bonding experience with the mother.

On the other hand, if the mother is incapable of bonding with her child, indifferent to or abusive of it – either from innate inadequacy or suffering from post-natal depression – nursery school may be a better alternative to a dysfunctional home environment. It has been noted recently that many small children enter nursery and primary school unable to speak or to interact with other children or adults because they have had hardly any personal interaction with their mothers at home, most probably because they are placed for hours in front of the television or because they are simply left to cry alone or are cowed into silence by physical abuse.

Memories of happiness and delight or of terror, abandonment, anxiety and grief which are imprinted on the field of the heart and limbic brain in earliest infancy and early childhood – even in the womb – remain imprinted on them throughout our lives and can affect the frontal lobes of the brain as these develop, whether positively or negatively.

With the development of the frontal lobes comes the ability to reflect, to reason, to apply knowledge gained to specific goals but also to develop the ideas conveyed by the imagination, to make intuitive connections between apparently unrelated things and ideas. But if the heart and the whole instinctual system connected with it are traumatized and deflected from a normal path of growth by the intense anxiety and fear aroused by neglect, abandonment or abuse, this capacity for harmonious and balanced interaction between the heart, the nervous system and the brain will be impaired.

Nothing, therefore, in relation to the well being and creativity of a whole society, is more important than the care of the mother and child and the way a child is treated both at home and at school in its early years. This applies to all societies, however rich or poor.