Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology: Why it Matters

Maine Association for Infant Mental Health

Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology: Why it Matters

I have spent most of my life speaking for little ones. Putting words to their actions, behaviors, and feelings is simply what I love to do and what I help others do. When my granddaughter comes home from a long day at school and falls apart, I know she’s worked hard to hold it together for 7 hours, and now she’s made it to her safe place. I use my words to articulate her feelings and to help her and her parents understand her behavior. I do the same for the preschool students in my classroom and the babies in our parent/infant program. Watching their actions, making sense of their behaviors, and empathizing with their feelings, is second nature. Is it any wonder that I would do the same for prenates? These little ones also communicate through their actions, behaviors, and feelings. They too have a lot to share, what are they telling us?

This is what the field of prenatal and perinatal psychology has been exploring for decades. Dr. Thomas Verney wrote The Secret Life of the Unborn Child in 1981 telling us that “the unborn child is a feeling, remembering, aware being and because he is, what happens to him – what happens to all of us – in the months between conception and birth molds and shapes our personality, drives, and ambitions, in very important ways (p. 15). Dr. Verney founded what is now known as the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health in 1983. It has been described by Dr. David Chamberlain as “the mother that nourishes us all”. Certainly, the association has gestated theories, given birth to new ideas, and provided a nurturing environment for the “language” of prenates to be heard and understood. This matters to me… it’s my why, why I do what I do and how I do it.

I am a mom, and it matters: My daughter is pregnant, and I take pride in the way she and her spouse connect with their baby girl. They know she hears and feels them, and I am blessed to witness these exchanges. I am a mom, and it matters: My granddaughter speaks of her time in the womb, and I believe her recollections. I am a woman, and it matters: I see birth as a beautiful and natural process that both mom and baby were created to participate in, and I strive to minimize the medicalization surrounding this journey. I am a maternal child nurse, and it matters: I want families to be empowered in the birthing process and I encourage writing birth plans that focus on intentions and feelings and creating pictures of ideal birth scenarios as a perfect place to start. I am a teacher of early child development, and it matters: When I consider development, “zero” begins at conception, not birth. Growth happens from the very beginning and so does our exploration. We marvel at the wonders in the womb and the incredible talents of the developing baby. I am a prenatal yoga instructor, and it matters: When a mom is happy and at peace, so too is her baby. As we practice grounding and balancing physical postures, we also bring forth an emotional grounding and balancing as well. I am a lactation consultant, and it matters: Promoting undisturbed birth and honoring the sacred hour after birth is vital. The newborn is capable of crawling to mama’s breast and initiating a pattern of connection that has lifelong implications. I cherish making this happen. I am a therapist, and it matters: Research tells me the physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual destiny of babies relies significantly on the quality of the interactions with their mothers from the beginning of life. Attachment is essential and I have an incredible responsibility and honor to educate, nurture, and support this newly formed dyad from conception, through birth, and beyond. Perhaps you do too.

Ultimately if you are someone who recognizes that what happens to us when we are small impacts who we become when we are big, then this may matter to you as well. The goal then becomes for the mother and those around her to create an environment that allows for the blossoming of this little bud of humanity. We become the dedicated nurturers of this period before birth and immediately after birth. This, I believe, is what prenatal and perinatal psychology is about and why it matters.

Additional Resources for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology

Book Review: Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemeakers

Parenting for PeaceI am a fan of acrostic poems. Over two decades ago I wrote such a poem regarding attachment. This poem became the back of a bookmark that was shared with the Maine Association of Infant Mental Health and is still used today. Though time has passed, the words, that were put to paper then, still hold true.

I began a special journey a decade ago, one that I continue to cherish. Exploring the field of prenatal and perinatal psychology spoke to my heart as did infant mental health. Honoring the relationship between parent and baby from the very beginning, from conception, has always made such perfect sense to me and this field had allowed me to do just that. Seeing prenates as sentient beings with incredible capabilities gives opportunity for parents to connect with their little ones, truly before they even conceive. Viewing the role of parenting in this light prompts me to see it as a blessing.

Marcey Axeness, author of Parenting for Peace, chooses to discuss principles of parenting using pneumonic assistance (as she describes it). I loved this book, not only because I love acrostic poems but because it is beautifully written. I appreciate her rationale for using principles “unlike rigid rules, principles encompass individual differences, where rules are static, principles give room to breathe, to discover, to inhabit, where rules constrain principles offer an endless palette of application” (p. 3).

I also love that this author considers the parenting journey from preconception and takes the reader through pregnancy, birth, the first seven years, and the next seven years. Her principles spell the word PARENTS; Presence, Awareness, Rhythm, Example, Nurturance, Trust, and Simplicity (p. 4). They are taken from a parent’s perspective and visited in each chapter. Axeness applies these principles and gives parents tools to practice along the way. The notion of visiting the same principles throughout her book with different age groups, is brilliant. Nuggets of information and things to do are threaded beautifully from one age to the next. This predictability is reassuring to the reader/parent as I’m sure it is reassuring to the child. In doing with us (cultivating peace) as she would have parents do with children is a beautiful way of paralleling the process. For instance, she explains,

Our children’s healthy development calls us to pursue our own development and presence practice is a rich way to do so. We can attune ourselves more deeply to what we are engaged in: gestures can become prayers, thoughts can become meditations, comments can become blessings” (p. 287).

I have read this book twice now and I keep revisiting different pieces. It truly is a work meant to be savored, I wish I was embarking on my parenting journey now and had this remarkable guide by my side.