“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)

References:

(1) Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence: http://www.birthpsychology.com/violence/verny.html

(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: http://www.birthpsychology.com/violence/verny.html

(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: http://birthpsychology.com/violence/chamberlain1.html

(7) Chamberlain, D.B. (1995) What Babies are Teaching us about Violence: http://birthpsychology.com/violence/chamberlain1.html

(8) Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence: http://www.birthpsychology.com/violence/verny.html

(9) Tonetti Vladimirova, E. (2008) The Limbic Imprint: http://www.birthintobeing.com/articles.shtml?do=fetch&&db_name=waterbirth&&item=10053.txt

(10) Tonetti Vladimirova, E. (2008) The Limbic Imprint: http://www.birthintobeing.com/articles.shtml?do=fetch&&db_name=waterbirth&&item=10053.txt

(11) Verny, T.R. (1996) Birth and Violence: http://www.birthpsychology.com/violence/verny.html

(12) Chamberlain, D.B. (1995) What Babies are Teaching us about Violence: http://birthpsychology.com/violence/chamberlain1.html

(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: http://www.birthpsychology.com/violence/verny.html

(15) Odent, M. (undated) The Caesareans: http://www.wombecology.com/caesareans.html

(16) Chamberlain, D.B. (1995) What Babies are Teaching us about Violence: http://birthpsychology.com/violence/chamberlain1.html

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Hindsight is sometimes a dark place to look back on my healing journey from the traumatic experience I had birthing Bodhi. But it can also be a lovely, lofty place that allows me clarity and perspective.

One thing I can  see in hindsight is a clear journey. Whilst it has not always felt clear, from the present moment, I can see the path that has unfolded for me, like a lotus flower gently opening until it reaches full bloom (the exciting thing being, I don’t believe I have reached “full bloom” yet).

Within this path, I can see stages and milestones that I have passed. I haven’t always realised it at the time, but there have been shifts in my focus, behavior, cognitions and feelings during the journey, that have resulted in a shift in psyche affecting my whole life and self.

The first stage was that of “support”. This was the first six or so weeks after the birth. I was heavily traumatised, moving from numbness and defeatedness to high anxiety. I needed assistance to carry out not only mothering activities that were new to me, but even basic daily tasks. I desperately searched for support  where ever I could get it, and sadly not always found it. It was an incredibly isolating time. So support not only refers to the predominant need I had, but also to the major task I had in this stage.

Finding the support- by convincing my husband just how broken I was, from a child and family health nurse, from some friends, and most importantly, my mother (I had very rarely confided in her on this level and the trust it took me to do this was immense considering the trust in others that had been broken by the birth event). Having surrounded myself with support, I was able to move onto healing in the security that others were with me.

That one was a palpable shift: having told my mother about the PTSD, and having been accepted and nurtured, I felt my self releeeeeeeeeaaaaaase all the anxiety and feel safe and a little understood for the first time in weeks. It was a much lighter feeling, and restful, and peaceful. The pain was still there; but I wasn’t alone.

The healing stage was less defined. This and the next stage- growth- ran separate at times, together at times, and wove together in a strong and vibrant way. However, I wasn’t able to grow until I started to heal.

In some ways, I am still healing. The pain and trauma comes and goes, and mainly I manage it well. It was learning to manage it well that was my task here, to express all the hurt and anger and guilt in an adaptive and productive way, and to seek a wider perspective on my experience. I was no longer immobilised by my trauma, and this was the stage that all the painful, hard, messy work was done.

This was the stage of counselling sessions, of many many debriefing talks with my husband, for a focus on bonding with my precious little child, and for surrounding myself in the stories of others, too. It was working with and through the pain. During this time I founded Birth Healing, and that too was an outlet for my pain. It started with absolutist, black and white feeling, and ended with being able to see shades of grey.

I started to see colours when I reached the growth stage. This was when I was able to take what had happened to me and turn it into something positive. I created Birth Healing, and invited other women to be nurtured and heal and grow, though perhaps I didn’t understand it all at that point. I came to see that Bodhi’s birth gifted me with a ferociousness of spirit, of strength, of a deeper self love and need for self nurture. I no longer needed to separate myself and my trauma. I was able to integrate this experience into my self, and as such, grew into the ‘completeless’ of me in the moment. I continue to ‘grow complete’ with each day, and without the traumatic experience of Bodhi’s birth, I would lack a vital part of my identity. There were many positives to be found, and coming across each of them has been a delight and a special gift from the universe. The pain is still there, but it doesn’t rule me. I rule it, and use it.

The fourth stage- my predominant one at the moment- is action. Despite the gifts my particular experience has given me, I can see that so much of the pain I experienced can be avoided. I see fundamental flaws in the way birthing is seen in our society- not only in the medicalisation of birth, but also the lack of understanding of what women and birth need, and importantly, how to support a birthing woman and baby in birth and babymoon, and I want to be part of the groundswell to bring birth into a more revered and respected place. I can feel so much energy related to birth, humming in the earth, in mamas and families worldwide, and this energy sustains me and all other birth activists (whether they are lobbying for birth reform, or more importantly, choosing peaceful birth options) and will eventually see birth overtake us all and be that revered, natural, wonderful ritual that we have lost.

I thought this stage would be full of anger, but it hasn’t been. Every time I uncover a new bit of information, a new perspective, a wise woman with lessons, or am surrounded by other birth-nurturers, I am filled with peace and inspiration and new determination. Sometimes I am angry, but it is an energetic anger directed at bringing about a powerful and wonderful goal.

These stages are not, as I have already said, mutually exclusive. I have experienced them all, have jumped back and forth between them, been in two or more of them at once. It’s a piece of art in itself. I do, however, belive I had to experience support before healing, healing before growth, and growth before action.

One goal I have, is to investigate whether other women have a similar pattern of recovery after traumatic birth experiences. Or, more accurately, I would like to help others be able to look back on thier journey (on the path, for it is a path we will always walk) and be able to see the beautiful tapestry behind them, to hold their pain, bless it, and walk on.