Learning begins at birth.

Annie Murphy Paul has written a book called, Origins, which discusses how the 9 months before birth may effect the rest of our lives.  What do foetuses learn whilst they are still in their mothers stomach? Do they learn? What impact does the environment and emotional wellbeing of the mother have on the foetus? Fetal origins is a scientific discipline that emerged just about two decades ago, and it’s based on the theory that our health and well-being throughout our lives is crucially affected by the nine months we spend in the womb.  We’re all learning about the world before we even enter it.

In this fascinating TED talk, Annie discusses those questions and opens up what we know already of the importance during pregnancy for not only health and wellbeing but also preconception care.

Some important points that I took from this talk :

– A foetus learns the sound of their mothers voice because they are one together, the mothers voice reverberates through her body, reaching the foetus much more readily, whereas outside voices are heard but are more muffled.  Therefore it hears its mothers voice a lot and once the baby is born it recognises its mothers voice and prefers it over any other sound.  This also applies to if the mother read aloud or listened to a certain show / music repeatedly during gestation, the baby will remember this when they hear it.  I remember hearing a story of a woman that watched the Australian soap opera show Neighbours every night and when her son was born the theme song at the start of the show would always soothe him.

– A study published a few years back found that babies cry in the accent of their mothers native language.  For example, the French babies cry ends on a rising note, while German babies cry ends on a falling note, imitating their language.  Why? It may be apart of the babies survival, the baby responds most to the voice of the person who is most likely to care for it — its mother. It even makes it cries sound like its mothers language.

– Foetuses are also learning tastes and smells in utero.  By 7 months gestation, the foetus’ taste buds are fully developed and its olfactory receptors, which allow it to smell are functioning.  Therefore, the flavours of food a pregnant woman eats will find their way into the amniotic fluid, which is continually swallowed by the foetus. Babies tend to prefer and remember these tastes when they are out into the world.  What we learn from this is that foetuses are being taught by their mother what is safe and good to eat and also being taught about the particular culture that they will be joining.

Much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life, the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she’s exposed to, the emotions she feels are shared in some fashion with her unborn baby.  The foetus takes these as part of itself making it part of its flesh and blood, literally.  The foetus treats these maternal contributions as information.  The foetus is learning the answers to some important questions like, Will I be born into an abundant or scarce world? Will it be safe and protected or will I face constant dangers and threats?  Will I live long and fruitful or short and harried life?  The pregnant womans diet and stress levels provide important clues to the world the foetus is going to enter.  This is also what teaches us our ability to thrive in a huge variety of environments.


The Dutch Hunger Winter

In 1944, World War II, German troops blockaded Western Holland, turning away all shipments of food, this was followed by one of the harshest winters in decades – so cold the water in the canals froze solid.  As food because scarce, the Dutch were surviving on around 500 calories a day, a 1/4 of what they consumed before the war.  On May 5th 1945, the siege came to a sudden end when Holland was liberated by the Allies.  The Hunger Winter as it was known killed some 10,000 people and weekend thousands more, but there were also 40,000 foetuses in utero during the siege.  How were they effected?  Some of the effects of malnutrition were seen in stillbirths, birth defects, low birth weights and infant mortality.  Other effect wouldn’t be discovered for years, these would manifest later in life as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, higher blood pressure, poorer cholesterol levels and reduced glucose tolerance.  When in utero and nutrition was scarce, it is suggested that nutrients would have been sent to the most important organ, the brain, and less to other organs like the heart and liver.  This is to keep the foetus alive in the short term but the long term effect is more susceptibility to disease.  What happened in the Dutch Hunger Winter was foetuses were led to believe that they were being born to a world of scarcity when it fact they were born to a world of plenty.  Their bodies were built to hang onto every calorie found, they were in starvation mode.

September 11, 2001

On this day, there was tens of thousands of people in the vicinity of the World Trade Centre in New York, 1,700 of them were pregnant women.  Many of these women experienced horror when the planes crashed, the overwhelming chaos and confusion, the toxic dust and debris and the heart pounding fear rushing through their bodies and the environment.  About a year after 9/11, researches examined a group of women who were pregnant when they were exposed to the World Trade Centre attack.  In the babies of those women who developed post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, following their ordeal, researchers discovered a biological marker of susceptibility to PTSD — an effect that was most pronounced in infants whose mothers experienced the catastrophe in their third trimester. In other words, the mothers with post-traumatic stress syndrome had passed on a vulnerability to the condition to their children while they were still in utero.  Now consider this: post-traumatic stress syndrome appears to be a reaction to stress gone very wrong,causing its victims tremendous unnecessary suffering. But there’s another way of thinking about PTSD.What looks like pathology to us may actually be a useful adaptation in some circumstances. In a particularly dangerous environment, the characteristic manifestations of PTSD — a hyper-awareness of one’s surroundings, a quick-trigger response to danger — could save someone’s life. The notion that the prenatal transmission of PTSD risk is adaptive is still speculative, but I find it rather poignant. It would mean that, even before birth, mothers are warning their children that it’s a wild world out there, telling them, “Be careful.”

Let me be clear. Fetal origins research is not about blaming women for what happens during pregnancy.  It’s about discovering how best to promote the health and well-being of the next generation. That important effort must include a focus on what fetuses learn during the nine months they spend in the womb. Learning is one of life’s most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined.

For more information about Annie Murphy Paul you can look at her book, Origins or look at her website http://anniemurphypaul.com/books#


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