MALAYSIA - The conception and birth of a baby is one of the glorious miracles of nature. The events related to it can be looked at in different ways in the context of maternal perception.
Many may take this opportunity for personal growth, or consider it as something to be endured. There will be a small percentage of prospective mothers who look at pregnancy as a dire crisis.
Whatever the mindset may be, the pregnant mother is dealing with a foetus that has incredible inner capabilities. We have the opportunity to explore and elicit these fetal capabilities to the maximum.
Foetus - a witless tadpole
About 200 years ago, a foetus in the womb was regarded as a deaf and dumb, insensitive piece of life. Some perceived it as a witless tadpole.
Today, we know that an unborn child is a sensory-responsive and communicative human being. He can see, hear, feel, and perhaps even form rudimentary levels of awareness in the womb. Therefore, lifelong education starting from the prenatal stage will no doubt produce a physically, mentally, and emotionally blessed, socially responsible child. Isn't it wonderful?
The idea that the unborn child is a sensory-responsive and communicative human being who can perceive changes in his extra-uterine environment existed even in ancient times, and it was Confucius who believed in the influence of environmental factors (such as the climate) that can form the character of the immature human being.
He proclaimed the necessity of lifelong education, which should actually begin at the early prenatal stage, and which could contribute to the formation of a good and socially responsible person.
These prenatal sensory stimulations can strengthen and enrich prenatal behavioural elements to such a degree that they later need not result in regressive behaviour, but can be transformed into creative behaviour.
Our ancestors were well aware that the mother's experiences impressed themselves on her unborn child.
That's why the Chinese established the first prenatal clinics thousands of years ago. It is also why even the most primitive cultures had strictures warning pregnant women away from "fighting" events.
References to these prenatal influences can be found in many ancient texts.
The first man to grasp the idea in all its dimensions, however, was neither a saint or a physician, but the great Italian artist and genius Leonardo da Vinci. His book Quaderni has more to say about prenatal influences than many modern medical texts. The rest of us needed four centuries to catch up with him.
The need for a new paradigm
With such sources of information, we are in a position to appreciate human growth in a holistic perspective, and view the immense intelligence of mind-body interactions from the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
Given the emerging paradigm that babies are aware of, communicative, and affected by their various interactions with us, there is new ground for hope. Parents and professionals interested in prenatal bonding and learning are in a strong position, not only to prevent needless suffering and handicap, but by sensitive behaviour and respectful acknowledgement of intelligence before birth, to build the best possible foundation through loving kindness and thoughtful dialogue with babies before birth.
In the 18th century, doctors looked at the human body as an erector set. What mattered was what could be immediately seen, touched and verified.
This was laudable, up to a point. Feelings and emotions were deemed too shadowy.
In the early part of this century, however, many of these "imprecise" elements were reintroduced into medicine via the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud's work touched only briefly on the unborn child.
But he established beyond all doubt that negative emotions and feelings adversely affected physical health. He called this notion psychosomatic disease.
If that was true, some researchers hypothesised, couldn't an emotion also shape an unborn baby's personality?
By the 1940s and 50s, investigators from different countries were certain that maternal emotions did affect the foetus. But they could not prove it in a laboratory.
By the mid-1960s, however, medical technology finally caught up with them. The work of such neurologists as Prof Dr Dominick Purpura of Albert Einstein Medical College in New York City, and others from Harvard and Karolinska Research Institute, Sweden, at last provided what had been so sorely lacking - hard incontestable physiological evidence that the foetus is a hearing, sensing, feeling being.
Dr Thomas Verny, in his marvellous book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, described the evolution of foetal activity in the womb. By the fifth week, for example, studies reveal that the foetus is already developing an amazingly complex repertoire of reflex actions. By the eighth week, he is not only moving his head, arms and trunk easily, he has already fashioned these movements into a primitive body language - expressing his likes and dislikes with well-placed jerks and kicks.
What he especially does not like is being poked at. If this happens, the two-and-a-half-month-old foetus will quickly squirm away, Dr Verny nicely explains.
In the womb, night is the busiest time of day for the baby. Lying in bed, his mother may be changing her resting posture due to heartburn, abdominal discomfort and leg cramps, and invariably there are at least three trips to the washroom. That is why infants have an inverted sleep rhythm.
Facial expressions take a little longer than general body movements to master. By the fourth month, the unborn child can frown, squint and grimace.
Four to eight weeks later, he is as sensitive to touch as any one-year-old. If his scalp is accidently tickled during medical examination, he quickly moves his head. He also vehemently dislikes cold water - if it is sprayed onto the mother's stomach, he kicks violently.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this amazing creature is his discriminating tastes.
Add saccharin to his normally bland diet of amniotic fluid, and his swallowing rate doubles.
Add foul-tasting, iodine-like oil, and swallowing rate not only drops sharply, but he also grimaces.
Recent studies also show that from the 24th week, the unborn child listens all the time. And he has a lot to listen to.
The pregnant abdomen and the uterus are very noisy places. His mother's stomach rumblings are the loudest sounds he hears. Her voice, his father's voice and other occasional noises are quieter, but still audible to him.
The sound that dominates his world, though, is the rhythmic thump of the maternal heartbeat. As long as it has a regular rhythm, the unborn knows all is well.
The unconscious memory of the maternal heartbeat in utero appears to be why a baby is comforted by being held to someone's chest, or lulled to sleep by the steady ticking of a clock.
Another expert, Elias Carnetti, thinks that the primal memory of a mother's heartbeat also explains a lot about our musical tastes.
All known drum rhythms conform to one of two basic patterns - either the rapid tattoo of animal hooves or the measured beat of the human heart.
Boris Brott, one of the leading musicians in Europe, was convinced his musical interests were awakened in the womb.
Audiologist Michele Clements has shown that the unborn child has distinct musical likes and dislikes.
Vivaldi is one of the unborn child's favourite composers. Mozart is another.
The music of Brahms and Beethoven, and all forms of rock music on the other hand, drive most foetuses to distraction.
In the 1920s, a German investigator reported an even sharper reaction. Several of his pregnant patients told him they had given up concerts because their unborn children reacted so stormily to music.
Later, they found out why.
From the 25th week, a foetus will literally jump in rhythm to the beat of an orchestral drum. This was too painful for moms.
An unborn child's vision develops more slowly.
A womb, although not totally dark, is not exactly the ideal place to practise seeing. But from the 16th week in utero, he is very sensitive to light. If a torch is flashed directly to the maternal abdomen, the foetus turns away.
They feel, think and remember
The fact that the unborn child has proven abilities to react to his surroundings through his senses shows that he has the basic prerequisites for learning.
Personality formation requires something more, namely awareness.
Recent neurological studies prove that consciousness exits in utero.
Prof Purpura believes that awareness begins between the 28th and 32nd week.
By this time, the brain's neural circuits are just as advanced as a newborn's.
At the same time, the cerebral cortex matures enough to support consciousness. It is what we use for thinking, feeling and remembering.
A few weeks later, brainwaves become distinct, making it easy to distinguish between the child's sleeping and waking patterns.
Even asleep, he is mentally active now. From the 32nd week, brainwave tests begin picking up periods of REM sleep, which in adults signify the presence of dream states.
The first memory tracts begin across the brain around the third trimester - from 28 weeks onwards.
Some investigators claim a child can remember from the sixth months onwards.
Anyway, there is no question that the unborn child remembers, or that he registers his memories.
Impact of mother's stress
Stress experienced by a woman during pregnancy may affect the unborn as early as 17 weeks after conception, with potentially harmful effects on brain development, according to new research.
The study is the first to show that unborn babies are exposed to their mother's stress hormones at such an early stage in pregnancy.
The findings, published in the Journal of Endocrinology, came after separate research on animals showed that high levels of stress in mothers during pregnancy could affect the brain function and behaviour in her offspring, and other evidence suggests that maternal stress in humans can affect the developing child, including lowering IQ.
It is scientifically accepted that the mind influences the body, and both combined together makes an individual healthy or sick.
The behavioural patterns of human beings are based on this principle of mind-body interaction.
The mother has sublime potentiality, and this fact is widely accepted by almost all faiths.
From a scientific perspective, motherhood has a hormonal base, which changes anatomical and physiological processes, giving pregnant women a different psychological harmony and understanding, so that mother and baby are kept protected without being exposed to dangers of unwholesome thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions, as they are nurtured in a peaceful environment.
When the expectant mother/father sends messages to the baby inside through soft music, words of loving kindness, respect and acceptance, these wholesome thoughts, feelings, and emotions get lodged in the infant within, and he/she will see the light of the world as a wholesome being.
The vital fact is how to communicate wholesomely with the unborn so that maternal and paternal wisdom can be translated into chemical changes in such a way that the umbilical cord can transmit these chemical messages to the unborn, who could end up as a versatile human being.
At the same time, unwholesome effects are also observed. From the medical standpoint, the womb could become a cradle of violence.
How can this happen?
Recent medical literature provides sufficient knowledge about these areas.
Again, "loving kindness" becomes key to the understanding of these horrendous effects of criminality.
The conditioning of the unborn to "repeated stresses" with unwanted effects is carefully dealt with.
The value of paternal participation in changing and forming the character of the foetus is also taken into account. Their feelings and habits influence the unborn positively or negatively.
It is proved beyond reasonable doubt that the unborn child can be nurtured to become a vital and valuable human being in later life.
The onus of this amazing transformation lies entirely with the parents.
Their unconditional love and affection can be communicated to the tiny being within the womb. Let us make use of this great opportunity provided by nature to create a peaceful world for a better future.
Dr Upali Marasinghe is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, and is currently attached to a private medical college in Malaysia.