The Disturbing Link between Birth and Violence

June 3, 2009

“Where does a person first experience feelings of love, rejection, anxiety and sadness? Where does a person first learn about interacting with people and the world? Where are basic character traits formed? In the first school we ever attend. – our mother’s womb. It is here that we receive our introduction courses in love, neglect, hate, anxiety, trust and empathy. It is here that we need to look for the roots of violence.” -Thomas R. Verny, expert on perinatal psychology(1).

The effect of the nature of a birth, be it peaceful or traumatic, is often overlooked by our maternity system, and especially by those focused solely on immediate medical outcomes.

However, research shows that birth can have a lifetime effect on the psychological wellbeing of an individual . A particularly disturbing area of this research is the link between the trauma sustained in being born, and the likelihood of violent behaviour in later life.

In a significant study of the link between birth events and early maternal rejection by psychologist Adrian Raine and colleagues at the University of Southern California, it was found that whilst only 4.5% of the subjects had risk factors of both birth trauma and early maternal rejection, this small group accounted for 18% of all violent crimes at 18 years of age. This violence was typically serious- including rape and murder- and early in onset (2).

Conversely, he also found that actions to reduce birth intervention and complications, and to foster mother-baby bonding, may help reduce violence.

Other studies have also found the link between obstetric complications and behavior disorders in children (Pasamanick, 1956), perinatal trauma and juvenile delinquency (Lewis et al, 1979), and perinatal complications and criminality (Litt, 1971)(3).

A study of prisoners in the Dutch penal system found that 15 out of the 16 most violent offenders had sustained birth trauma(4).

Violence towards self is also implicated: in a study of suicidology among people who had sustained birth trauma, it was found that there was a significant link between suicides involving asphyxiation and asphyxiation at birth; suicides by violent mechanical means were associated with mechanical birth trauma; and drug addiction was associated with opiate or barbiturate administration to mothers during labor(5).

David B. Chamberlain, an expert on birth psychology, states: “Until recently, the prevailing scientific habit has been to treat the earliest period of human development–from conception to birth–as an insensitive, unconscious, period of physical growth. Babies are teaching us quite the opposite: they are highly sensitive, reactive, and impressionable participants throughout gestation and birth. However, this is still the minority view in both medicine and psychology.”(6)

Chamberlain was first made aware of birth trauma as a significant psychological event by his observations of clients remembering birth during hypnosis. These clients actively protested actions in their birth such as the pressure of forceps on their heads, cold rooms, bright lights, needle injections, repeated heel jabs for blood, stinging or blurring eye medicine, being suspended by their feet, hasty cutting of the umbilical cord, separating them from their mother, and isolation in nurseries.

A number of researchers have concluded that babies in utero and newborns are able to undertake tactile, auditory, olfactory, imitative and verbal learning. (7)

It is now known that the newborn’s brain, nervous system and senses are active and “a normal range of human emotions is felt and expressed while the infant’s mind is alert, perceptive, exploring, and busy incorporating each new experience.” (8)

Elena Tonetti- Vladimirova, spiritual midwife and director of the film “Birth as We Know It” says: “The new baby, way before the birth day, during it and right after, is an extremely sensitive being, in fact, more sensitive than he or she will ever be during the adult life. And not only able to have all those sensations and feelings, but also to not-cognitively remember them! Our early impressions stay with us for the rest of our lives, for better or for worse.” (9)

Tonetti-Vladimirova decribes the process of “limbic imprinting”. This term refers to the direct correlation between the events during birth and subconscious behavioural and emotional patterns later in life.

The limbic system is the part of the brain responsible for emotions and sensations, as opposed to the reptilian brain that undertakes the purely physiological functions of the body; and the cortex, the centre for mental activity. (10)

Tonetti- Vladimirova says: “During gestation, birth and early childhood, the limbic system registers all of our sensations and feelings, without translating it into the language of cortex, simply because it’s not developed yet. That memory lives in the body through out the rest of our life whether we know of it or not…And in the future, as adults, we will unconsciously, automatically re-create the conditions that were imprinted at birth and through our early childhood.”

The sensory experiences of a newborn as they are born impact greatly on a baby. Babies who are born into an environment of bright lights, strange noises, and hurried staff are given needles, have mucous suctioned from their noses, are weighed on cold scales and are wrapped in cloths that feel foreign and disturbing after never experiencing the feeling of anything but the uterus around them. This is all whilst experiencing what it feels like to take a breath, or see the world for the first time- intense sensory experiences in themselves!

Thomas R. Verny states: “What is the effect of this painful, sensory overload on babies? Firstly, they don’t thrive as well as they should. Secondly, they become psychologically traumatized. The helplessness, the grief of separation from mother, the absence of touching, the constant fear of being hurt, the rage, the anger–these are feelings permanently recorded in their memory banks.” (11)

Circumcision is one striking example of birth and violence combined. David B. Chamberlain states: “First of all, a boy is permanently deprived of a functional part of his sexual anatomy. Is this not a serious long-term consequence? In my experience with clients, circumcision has sometimes been the origin of deep distrust between mother and son, or has left the victim with an unconscious impression there is something wrong with his penis.”(12)

Marilyn Milos, the founder of the National Organisation of Circumcision Information Resource Centres, says: “Circumcision is where sex and violence meet for the first time.”(13)

So does a traumatic birth mean that violent behaviour must manifest later in life? Not necessarily. Many parenting practices can help overcome the effect of the birth trauma and create a new gestalt for the child.

These include delaying weighing and other actions for the first hour past birth, and allowing mother and child to bond whilst hormones that induce love and bonding are still at peak levels; not intruding on the family’s need to baby moon, and undertake practices that foster attachment, such as co-sleeping, baby wearing and/or in arms parenting, and breastfeeding; along with attitudes such as aiming for empathic and connected parenting, and being responsive to the child’s needs and cries.

In the words of Louise Kaplan, an American psychoanalyst: “I firmly believe that all mammalian infants including the human infant are hard-wired to develop loving relationships with their fellow species. Whether or not they do so depends entirely on how they are treated. Such an argument is strengthened by findings which show that neural pathways for altruism and aggression may be reciprocally related, so that aggression reflects a deficit in endogenous opiates, whereas their secretion reduces aggressiveness by promoting social comfort and play.” (14)

Of course, however, the best action for the child is to been born gently and respectfully when at all possible.

If birth can have such a significance on violence in later life, and other behavioural actions, why aren’t the systems that endorse ungentle practices in birth decried? And why is it not more on the public agenda, or even in public awareness?

Renowned French Obstetrician Michael Odent comments: “I came to the conclusion that research can be politically incorrect. Most researchers looking at how people were born have faced extreme bureaucratic difficulties. It may be that they are shaking the very foundations of our societies, insofar as the birth process has always been ritually disturbed. It may be also that very few people have developed their capacity to think long-term and are ready to perceive the importance of this developing field of research, which is a new branch of epidemiology.” (15)

It is imperative that as a society we respect birth as a vitally important force in shaping the individuals we will become. Birth is not only an event that can have intense short term physical, social and psychological effects, but can impact the rest of our lives.

A peaceful, loving society starts with a peaceful, loving birth.

“Taken together, this alarming evidence suggests that babies born in the era of hospital obstetrics from 1939 to present were born in violence, baptised by violence. Neither medicine nor psychology understood the formative influence of early pain.”- David B. Chamberlain (16)


(1) Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence:

(2) Raine, A., Brennan, P., and Mednick, S.A. “Interaction Between Birth Complications and Early Maternal
Rejection in Predisposing Individuals to Adult Violence: Specificity to Serious, Early-Onset Violence” In American Journal of Psychiatry, 154:9, September 1997

(3) Raine, A., Brennan, P., and Mednick, S.A. “Interaction Between Birth Complications and Early Maternal
Rejection in Predisposing Individuals to Adult Violence: Specificity to Serious, Early-Onset Violence” In American Journal of Psychiatry, 154:9, September 1997

(4) Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence:

(5) Jacobson, B., Eklund, G. “Perinatal Origin of adult self destructive behaviour” In ACTA Psychiatry Scandinavia, 1987, 76: 364-371

(6) Chamberlain, D.B. (1995) What Babies are Teaching us about Violence:

(7) Chamberlain, D.B. (1995) What Babies are Teaching us about Violence:

(8) Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence:

(9) Tonetti Vladimirova, E. (2008) The Limbic Imprint:

(10) Tonetti Vladimirova, E. (2008) The Limbic Imprint:

(11) Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence:

(12) Chamberlain, D.B. (1995) What Babies are Teaching us about Violence:

(13) Callander, M. “Intact! Protecting our boys from circumcision” In byronchild/Kindred, Issue 10

(14) Kaplan, L. (1996), cited in Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence:

(15) Odent, M. (undated) The Caesareans:

(16) Chamberlain, D.B. (1995) What Babies are Teaching us about Violence:


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