Creating Emotional Foundations

One of the biggest surprises about life in the womb is the extent of emotional involvement and expression, generally not anticipated in psychology or medicine. Spontaneous and graceful movement that can now be observed from about 10 weeks after conception reveals self-expression and early aspects of self-control, needs and interests. Some behaviours reflect a protest against uncomfortable experiences. By 15 weeks, ultrasound shows babies moving in reaction to something as simple as a mother’s laugh or cough. More disturbing are the aggressive actions seen toward the needle during amniocentesis–attacking the needle barrel with a closed fist, suggesting self-protection, self-assertion, fear and anger that was previously thought unreal and impossible. With surprising development of hearing and tasting before 16 weeks gestational age, the way is open for babies to have even more extensive interactions with their mothers and fathers. Ultrasound imaging of twins similarly shows the unexpected scope of their social relationships seen in repeated hitting, kicking, kissing, or playing together. Life in the womb–now that we can observe it–bears little resemblance to the lazy world previously hypothesized in which a baby was a passive passenger virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. In those days, parents themselves thought it was appropriate to be deaf, dumb, and blind. As it is with the establishment of physical settings in utero, the emotional system is also organizing itself in relation to the range and varieties of experiences encountered. A baby surrounded with anger, fear, and anxiety will be adjusting itself to that world and may carry those settings forward unless something changes. Patterns of fearful reaction already visible via ultrasound before birth can be seen after birth. This emotional sensitivity of the foetus is one big reason why adoption cannot be viewed as just a simple experience for the parents. Chances are, an adopted baby has emerged from confusion and conflict, both troubled and conditioned by the turmoil of the birth parents. They have been learning from experience and are likely to arrive feeling at least uncertain, possibly rejected, carrying unconscious baggage of anxiety about its identity and connections. Parents are potent factors in shaping the dynamic world of the unborn.