The greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you.
Dr John Gottman, The Gottman Foundation
The birth of a baby brings less time for intimacy, conversation and connection. Learning to strengthen your relationship with your partner during pregnancy and discover ways to work together to deepen your connection ensures the foundations of your partnership is one that thrives and becoming parents transforms your relationship in positive ways.
However, with a new baby making demands on your time, your mind and your emotions, maintaining that happy and strong relationship isn’t that easy with all the new changes in your lives.
The mother baby relationship and care in the first months after birth provides the foundation for your baby’s neurobiological, social, emotional and cognitive development. A woman’s brain is changing in pregnancy and motherhood. A study published in 2010 by Kim et al. shows that a mother’s brain is actually growing and changing during pregnancy and motherhood to adapt to these changes! Specifically, the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and midbrain areas increases, which is associated with a mother’s positive perception of her baby and the initiation of the maternal caring behaviours.
A more recent study completed by Dr. Elseline Hoekzema et al, published in 2016, outlines the radical hormonal surge and biological adaption that comes with pregnancy and motherhood. These changes result in long term changes in the brain structure bringing about a pruning effect in the gray matter of the brain in areas associated with social cognition resulting in a mother’s heightened focused attention on her baby.
These brain changes in combination with the dramatic hormonal changes such as the increase in dopamine and oxytocin, create a love bubble between the mother and baby which keeps her motivated to care for, love and turn her attention towards this tiny dependent human.
Is it any wonder that maintaining the strong connection between you and your partner becomes more difficult in early parenthood. At Nurturing Us we focus on putting in place steps to consciously connect during pregnancy to make the transition from a couple to a family easier. To ensure your relationship not just survives becoming parents but thrives during the roller coaster of new parenthood.
Carve out conscious intentional time with your partner. Before your baby came along this happened naturally, there were not so many competing demands on your time and attention. With a new baby this requires conscious thought to do the things that bring you joy together. Cook a meal together, watch a movie, go for a walk, do something together that brings your pleasure and ignites connection with each other.
Emotional connection comes with active listening. When you meet after time apart during the day, ask two simple questions. ‘How was your day?’ listen to your partners response, then ask ‘Tell me more’ The magic is not in the questions but in the listening to your partners reply, show compassion, be curious about their experience and reap the rewards in emotional connection
Keeping your relationship strong requires intentional appreciation, adopt an attitude of gratitude. Put positive energy and appreciation into your relationship by recognising the things you appreciate about your partner. How you think about your partner influences how your treat them, train yourself to be intentionally appreciative. Start small, think of three things you love about your partner and soon you notice more and more things you appreciate about them. Now turn those thoughts into actions – tell them, compliment them, no matter how small you are building and strengthening emotional connection, increase intimacy and understanding in small gentle ways.
Kim, P., Leckman, J. F., Mayes, L. C., Feldman, R., Wang, X., and Swain, J. E. (2010). The plasticity of human maternal brain: Longitudinal changes in brain anatomy during the early postpartum period. Behavioral Neuroscience, 124(5), 695-700.
Hoekzema E., Barba-Müller E., Pozzobon C., Picado M., Barba-Müller E., Lucco F., García-García D., Carlos Soliva J., Tobeña A., Desco M., Crone E., BallesterosA., Carmona S and Vilarroya O. (2017) Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience 20, 287–296
Early pregnancy can be very confusing. Women are receiving information, choices and options from their midwife, obstetrician, best friend, Facebook and their mother in law. They are often channeled into pathways without a clear understanding of what that means for them or their baby. As midwives we are meeting women in late pregnancy who wished they had made different choices earlier in pregnancy. They wished they had known all the options available to them offered as part of a collaborative and integrative approach to pregnancy. Confidence in pregnancy, known as self-efficacy is well documented to improve well-being and have an important impact on a woman’s belief in her abilities to birth her baby. How can we ensure that women have positive self-efficacy as they approach the birth of their baby and transition to motherhood. How can we value the time of pregnancy as a significant life event to begin to see the benefits in a mindful connection between mother and child rather than just a means to an end.
Women with a high self-efficacy and internal confidence believe in their ability to birth their baby and have confidence in their ability to transition to becoming mothers and we believe this approach is best nurtured from early pregnancy. We want to guide women through the complexity of choices in early pregnancy to help them have a calm, confident and inspired pregnancy that best prepares you for birth and parenthood. This positive self-efficacy is not only important for birth outcomes but has a positive emotional impact on a woman who is not experiencing feelings of worry, fear, anxiety.
Epigenetics, neuroscience and peri-natal psychology have brought together research over the past few decades to expand our understanding of how the development of a baby in the womb during pregnancy is influenced by genetic input but also by environmental factors. The emerging field of epigenetics seeks to understand the environmental elements that influence whether genes are turned on or off and is beginning to give us an understanding of how positive and negative exposures in-utero change genetic expression. The traditional understanding that simply genetics predetermine a baby’s future is being questioned by the new understanding that how our environment is perceived prepares a baby for the world after birth. The baby is prepared for the world as the mother perceives it as the baby developing in the womb received feedback about the world after birth from the mother while they are developing in the womb.
These environmental factors are continually changing depending on the mother’s physical and emotional experiences. This complex tapestry of influences from conception to birth impacts a baby’s health, ability and wellbeing through life. A mother’s thoughts and emotional environment she creates have a significant influence on the developing baby. A baby developing in the womb is a conscious being, an active participant that changes and responds to environmental influences, and the mother has an amazing opportunity to provide a safe and nurturing environment in which to grow. Bruce Lipton describes pregnancy as natures head start program.
Human beings are affected by their environment as soon as they have an environment, and that means as soon as they are implanted in the womb. People are conceiving, carrying and birthing children under increasingly stressful conditions.
Increasingly we live and we grow babies in a modern society that is busy and hurried. It can appear harmless to us because we have adapted to the relentless busyness. Busy and stressed is our normal but it is not normal for a baby growing and developing in the womb. Babies are conscious, perceptive and aware beings in-utero. We have a choice and an opportunity to define the environment our babies grow in, for our own benefit but also our baby’s wellbeing.
We should recognise that with conscious awareness, compassion and connection we can influence the world our babies develop within and make their world as loving, connected and nurturing as possible. To foster an emotional environment that knows gratitude and compassion, that is open, clearer, calmer, accepting and grounded in a loving connection with our growing baby in-utero is one that moves a baby from insecurity about the world to security. High self-efficacy in pregnancy also allows the mother to have confidence in her ability to birth her baby and approach the transition to motherhood more positive anticipation.
Nourishing your baby with whole foods is key to providing the building blocks of life but a mother’s emotional environment is programming the epigenetic read out of the child so the child is adapting to how they perceive life after birth. Emotional states are not just abstract mental experiences, they have physical correlates in our body. Our mind and our bodies are intrinsically linked and the baby experiences the changes in emotional chemicals and hormones that circulate via the placenta.
To have this insight as a pregnant woman is powerful and empowering. To know that what happens in the womb can last a lifetime, that parents have an opportunity to shape the development of their baby long before they are born means simply we must begin with how we treat pregnant women as a society and also how pregnant women care for themselves. Realising the importance of how a pregnant woman nurtures and cares for herself physically and emotionally is fundamental to future generations and builds self-efficacy as she approaches childbirth and motherhood.
Peace of mind comes when a mother has a clear understanding of the choices that are available from the beginning of pregnancy. In order for the most appropriate choices to be made based on the individual, decisions in early pregnancy such as choosing a model of maternity care, where to birth her baby, choosing a birth education program and the type of pregnancy care need to be made with open and transparent access to information. This will influence how empowered women feel about decisions that involve their body and their baby. Making positive choices based on knowledge and psychological support this allows women to build self-efficacy and erodes the fear and anxiety many women feel in pregnancy.
Wanting to give women solutions and strategies we have gathered together the evidence about what women can do to best lay the foundations from conception to birth, to have so they enter motherhood emotionally and physically strong and confident. The following practices stand out.
These strategies form the Nurturing Us Map to Pregnancy. This framework forms the foundations of our workshops and guides us as we work alongside women during pregnancy.
Karen McNeil and Agnele Mihovilovic