“A person cannot become a person at one time or another of his development –
before implantation or after - he is a person from the very beginning of fertilization,
the one and the only in every moment of his existence.”
The Beginnings of Human Life, by Erich Blechschmidt
The beginning of perinatology
The term "perinatology" (Greek "peri" - around + Latin "natus" - birth + Greek "logos" - study, science) has become part of scientific literature since the 60s. of XX century. International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (FIGO) at the VII Congress in 1973 accepted a proposal to introduce a particular direction in medicine - perinatology, which focuses on studying the perinatal stage of human life. According to the modern approach, the perinatal period (around birth) begins with 22 full weeks (154 days) of the foetus’s intrauterine life (at this stage, the average body weight of the foetus is 500 g) and ends seven full days after birth.
Three distinctive stages in perinatal time
The perinatal period includes the time before childbirth - antenatal, during delivery - intrapartum, and after childbirth - postnatal periods. An integral part of the postnatal period is the neonatal period. The proposal to separate the ante-, intra- and postnatal periods of human life is associated with the famous pioneering German gynecologist and midwifery professional Erich Saling. Many sources identify him as "the father of perinatal medicine": one even identifies him as the originator of the term "perinatal medicine". He pointed out the need for an in-depth study of this stage with the involvement of various specialists to reduce perinatal morbidity and mortality. It was dictated by realities in the 50-the 70s of the twentieth century when many European countries faced declining fertility and high rates of perinatal and infant (after seven days of life) mortality. Many scientists supported Erich Saling's idea, and in 1976 was created the European Association of Perinatal Medicine (EAPM) was.
The perinatal period is significant for early human development since, by the end of pregnancy, the intrauterine formation of the foetus ends; during childbirth, the foetus is exposed to many factors, and during the first seven days, the new-born is adapting to extrauterine life.
"Prenatal and perinatal psychology is the interdisciplinary study of the earliest periods in human development, including conception, time in the womb, experiences during and after birth, and experiences with caregivers and the family system through the first year following birth. Theory and research in multiple disciplines, including embryology, morphogenesis, bioengineering, evolutionary biology, psychophysiology, behavioural perinatology, neurobiology, affective neuroscience, attachment, and traumatology, provide the foundation for exploring how experiences during this critical developmental period impact an individual. Knowledge from these fields illuminates the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional impacts of our earliest experiences and how they form enduring response patterns that shape our development, behaviour and health over the life span" (1).
Prenatal and perinatal psychology is the science of the mental and psychological life of an unborn or just born child (the science of the initial phase of human development - prenatal and perinatal). It is a field of knowledge (a sub-branch of developmental psychology) that studies the circumstances and patterns of human development in the early stages: prenatal (antenatal), perinatal (intra-natal) and neonatal (postnatal) phases of development, and their impact on the entire subsequent life.
In other words, these definitions can be simplified. Human health and wellbeing during the entire life are built in the mother's womb and then in the first years of development. Our nervous system, beliefs, & behaviours are prepared and influenced by our environment: our birth mother and our primary caregivers.
In the first five years of development, the child gains 85% of the information necessary for life. According to the intensity of development, one day of intrauterine life equals one month after birth or a year after seven years. It is impressive, but it also makes you think - can we let everything in the hands of a chance at this time and not do what is vital for the child? We cannot, and we must take it more seriously because the perinatal period is the most critical time when organs, structures or systems are most sensitive to a particular impact. The consequences of unfavourable impact can leave a deep imprint on the entire human life.
Why is perinatal experience important for human development?
For many years we used to think that human development depends on genetics, environment, and education. Now we have enough evidence to add perinatal experience as factor number four. Why?
Here I present just a few reasons to consider when we answer the question "why" – the research in epigenetics, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, and bonding and attachment theory and practice.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself (Wikipedia). So, epigenetics reconsiders genetic determinism. Gene Myopia is the term that represents the view that health and life, all is controlled by genes alone. Epigenetic changes do not alternate your DNA sequence and are reversible. They change how your body reads a DNA sequence. Epigenetics stands for the importance of epigenetic mechanisms by which environmental stimuli regulate gene activity. In human life, genes are shaped, guided, and tailored by environmental learning experiences. And the learning environment is created by parents even before conception. Infants need a nurturing environment to activate the genes that develop healthy bodies and brains. The latest scientific discoveries show that parents are genetic engineers for their children and continue to be even after the birth of their child.
Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
Today we have what scientists call the new psychobiological “theory of everything”. This theory’s focus is interdependence between childhood trauma brain architecture and adult well-being. Every few decades, innovative psychosocial theory of everything helps us develop a new understanding of the links between the beginning of our life and adulthood outcomes. At the beginning of the 20th century, Freud established psychoanalytic theory, which says that the unconscious rules much of our life, work, and dreams. He created the concept of the Ego. Jung created a theory about a human tendency toward introversion or extraversion. And as a result, Briggs and Myers developed a personality indicator, their famous test. Head Start and preschool become part of our life thanks to more recent neuroscientists discoveries that “zero to three” was a critical stage for brain development.
We understand that Adverse Childhood Experiences helps us in a new unorthodox way to see and explain many areas of our life. By realizing what happened to us, we can find answers about our health, personality, relationships, connections, parenting, aim for a better life or lack of it. Adverse Childhood Experience research demonstrates that both physical and emotional suffering find their roots in the complexity of the human immune system. Childhood experiences live a blueprint in a child’s brain that affects how the immune system operates later in life and affects almost everything – mind, body, brain.
“The unifying principle of this new “theory of everything” is this: your emotional biography becomes your physical biology. And together, they write much of the script for how you will live your life. Put another way; you early stories script your biology, and your biology scripts the way your life will play out” (4).
Bonding and attachment theory and practice
Attachment theory supports the idea that humans are born with a need to form a close emotional bond with a caregiver. Such a bond will develop conditionally during the first years of a child's life. The primary condition is the caregiver's appropriate, loving, constant, and warm response to the child's needs. The quality of the first human attachment will shape a healthy or unhealthy capacity for connection and aliveness in the future. If the attachment doesn't have a solid foundation, the child and later the adult will experience nervous system dysregulation, disruptions in attachment, and even distortions of identity.
The focal point of perinatal psychology research and practice is on the following areas:
a) early child development (within the framework of the dyadic relationship, including pregnancy and birth).
b) psychology of motherhood and fatherhood (in terms of the conditions provided by parents for child’s development).
c) ontogenesis (the development of an individual organism or anatomical or behavioural feature from the earliest stage to maturity) of the parental sphere (motherhood and fatherhood - in the aspect of the formation of readiness for parenthood).
d) the influence of pre -, perinatal and dyadic experience on an adult's psyche, personality traits, partnership quality, parent-child relationships, and the mind-body connection.
e) stages of the reproductive cycle - conception, pregnancy, childbirth, dyad formation, early child development, and separation.
To accomplish its work, perinatal psychology specialists work with interrelated disciplines like developmental psychology, pediatric and obstetrical medicine, neuroscience, infancy and early child development, obstetrics and gynaecology, nursing, social work, early childhood education, infant mental health, human behavioural teratology, etc.
There are lots of things that can be done to assure a thriving and nurtured environment for our children to reach their genetic and creative potential. By becoming conscious parents, we not only build such an environment, but we make the first step towards making our children even better parents in the future. Let consider the following areas where we, all parents, can and must work on:
• Healing own traumas, emotional responses to stress, alleviate own childhood scars.
• Honest and loving desire to parent and to invest in a child’s life.
• Serious holistic preparation for conception.
• Pre-natal bonding with both parents.
• Holistic birth with minimal clinical interventions.
• Successful fourth trimester for the entire family.
• Building bonding and attachment foundation.
p.s.The notion of perinatal psychology is not familiar to many. Most of the time, my clients ask for a detailed explanation of what is about, which is perfectly fine with me. I work in a considerable new field, and I am more than happy to promote the science I am very fond of.
1. Prenatal Development and Parents' Lived Experiences, by Ann Diamond Weinstein
2. Prenatal exposures. Psychological and educational consequences for children, by Roy P.Martin and Stefan C.Dombrovski
3. The biology of belief, by Bruce H.Lipton
4. Childhood disrupted. How your biography becomes your biology, and how you can heal, by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
5. Handbook of Infant Mental Health, Fourth Edition, by Charles H. Zeanah, Jr.
6. Healing Developmental Trauma, by Laurence Heller and Aline Lapierre