Pre- and Perinatal Somatic Psychology encompasses the time before birth, during or relating to pregnancy and the period immediately following birth.
The PPN field is both historical and at the same time coming of age. During the late 20th century, modern psychology shifted from focusing solely on “childhood” as the cause of maladaptive behavior affecting children and adults to the period of “infancy” (zero to three) as more relevant in understanding the lifelong-patterns and behaviors seen in these populations. By the late 80’s, the focus had shifted again to a new set of theories and observations: it proposed that Consciousness exists early on and is shaped by events recorded as cellular memory prior to cognition. By then, the primary focus of research had shifted again to an earliest period in the child’s development: the time between pre-conception and the first year after birth.
This idea has slowly traveled into the world of Developmental Trauma Somatic Psychology claiming that infants have a story to tell, a story formed well before their birth and well before their thinking process is on board. The PPN perspective can now be included in an exploration into the very early developmental influences of a human being: it is part of a leading edge territory of tools helping clients heal into wholeness and nervous system regulation.
Contrary to the popular cultural views that unborn babies are not having their own experience and that they don’t need parenting until we see them in our arms after birth, PPN Somatic Psychology teaches that, from (pre) conception onward, we, as babies, are laying down our foundational imprinting for life. These babies, even before conception, are listening to us about what our world is like, long before we are listening to them.
The unborn or infant child experiences what the mother experiences, what the family experiences, and builds her body from pre-conception onward, at a genetic and epigenetic level – mind, body, emotion, spirit- to suit this environment. This provides the template for health decades later. On a broader scale, these babies also resonate with at least three generations of their legacy, the wisdom of their ancestors and the history of the social, cultural, religious and political environment that held these generations.
An infant will pick up energy from prior events as cellular impressions (womb tissue memories). Memory exists in the cells long before cognition develops in the brain. These imprints are implicit (memories acquired and used unconsciously) and are accessible when there is recognition and support in the environment (example: in a safe family setting or in therapy). Children show them through play. Adults will show them through symptoms and long held behaviors and defenses. Shock energy is resolved when implicit cellular memory is brought to the surface, witnessed and interacted with.
In an ideal world, the best predictor of a relaxed, calm and regulated baby is a relaxed and calm pregnancy and birth. A huge indicator of health is the quality of the relationship between mom and dad. Unborn babies need their parents to clear up tensions in their relationships and develop a commitment to support one another while attending to the baby. Did mom and dad want children? Did they consciously plan on starting or expanding a family? Did they come together in love to conceive? These are a few of many questions asked as we look at the baby’s foundational architecture.
Myrna Martin reminds us of this basic premise: what happens to us in pre-conception, prenatally and in the first year of life establishes a template in us that is the basis of our physical and mental health – and certainly of our attachment style. Prenatal and natal attachment is a biologically based communication system that is directly imprinting each baby through the co-regulation with another being. It starts at pre-conception.
By day five post-birth the attachment style can already be predicted according to the social interaction between parents and infants and via the orienting response to Self (here) and to the Outside (there) (Brazelton). By the third month post-birth, the amygdala (our own “alarm system” for danger) has already encoded if we are safe and lovable. Working through the PPN lens brings on a profound healing.
Blueprint Vs Imprint
In human life the body is central. It is the holder, the container, the translator, and the mediator of all experiences. Stress, trauma, or violence leaves an imprint on the body that is woven into neural, sensory, motor and muscle systems. However, the body, by nature, holds a blueprint for maintaining health says John Chitty. It is this blueprint that serves as the basis for restoring health and well-being. (1) This blueprint is our guiding light in therapy.
Our blueprint is our vitality, our life force, our natural rhythm like the tides, our heartbeat and our breathing. It’s expansion and contraction, perception and feeling outside of thought. It can be felt in quietness, when we slow down. It is harmony with the unadulterated organic pulse. Moving in resonance with a unifying field. Here and now.
It is associated with a bright, easy and joyous expression of Self. Even though the imprint often drives us in our daily lives, a deeper sensation of a healthy blueprint is underneath. We need to change focus, to reconnect with our original operating system, our genuine expression of authenticity. Both imprint and blueprint show up simultaneously in life and we need to learn to re-orient to the blueprint, as we become identified too often with our imprint.
Annie Brook tells us that the imprints are implicit memories or pre-cognitive life events and these recorded events are stored in the consciousness of cells and tissues and in the nervous system in a non-linear fashion. These events are related to the baby’s safety and survival. They form layers of encoded messages that we store early on.
When the pre- and perinatal world is accessed in therapy, these implicit memories become explicit, are named, felt, sensed and have an opportunity to transform. New neuropathways are created and healing can occur.
Examples of themes related to encoded imprints can be found in what mother and baby go through during the sequence of pre-conception through birth. (Note to the reader: some of these issues can be very triggering and therefore I will not name all of them here. If you feel activated reading this material, please stop or pause and look around you to re-orient to the here and now.) Issues of safety, losses, shock and illness, violence in the home, poverty, generational trauma, use of recreational drugs or alcohol during pregnancy (toxic womb), use of chemicals at birth (anesthesia), surgical imprints at birth (C-section or forceps), previous miscarriages or abortions (haunted womb) etc…
It is not unusual to see clients unravel stories and embodied sensations related to conception or birth on my table. Children and adults can retain PPN imprints for decades. Such layers of imprints (the blueprint is underneath) have formed the new baseline for stress responses that can last for a long time. These imprints, encoded in mind/body/heart /soul/emotions become the (mis)guiding map of our daily lives. They also become our symptoms and our inability to regulate and connect to our primal vitality and to others. Memories from conception, birth, postnatal experience and childhood can continue to profoundly impact us as adults in our intimate relationships, our health, and our sense of safety and well being in the world.
When someone gets triggered in their adult state, an associative implicit memory (an imprint) from the past hijacks the present time. This memory comes in the form of a physiological response (physical and emotional usually) that causes a repetition of a learned behavior for survival and safety. These behaviors might have been successful in the past as positive responses to early threat. These responses were then stored in the cells to be re-used at a later date when stress arises. (The cells that fire together wire together).
Unfortunately, these behaviors and responses to the “today” trigger are not proportionate to the context when they occur. They are merely the echoes of a time when life was uncertain and survival was at stake. Working in therapy helps dislodge the underlying cellular imprints from the past so there is an opportunity to transform them.
Hospital birth practices have not always been friendly to moms and babies. The use of forceps (head crushing tool to extract a stuck baby), ultimately a lifesaving tool for some, can disrupt the organic process of teamwork between mom and baby at birth and can leave an imprint of: “I feel invaded upon, I need saving, I don’t trust my own choices, I need pressure in order to feel myself, I need to be rescued, my potency has been interrupted and now I am mad”. These beliefs and somatic imprints can linger for decades and impact life choices, career paths and relationship issues for a long time.
A C-section baby can become a child or an adult extremely challenged with transitions, with making changes in plans and sharing control. The abrupt pulling out of the baby under anesthesia interrupts the well-paced organic birth process. Even though the intervention might have been a life saving procedure at the time, this brutal imprint can last for decades. It is a break in the baby’s capacity to push himself into birth (later on, the adult’s potency in dealing with life), a baby who wanted to trust the birth process and be “in charge” with mom and who was brutally interrupted. This might result in self-reliant children who need to take charge and need to control their environment permanently.
The anesthesia itself can cause numbness, a disconnect from mom and abandonment feelings. “I can’t find my way” is a common theme for babies who lost their orientation to birth because of anesthesia.
What is in the field that we cross as we are conceived?
We don’t come to this earth as blank canvases. As we are conceived in a family unit, we are also the receptacle of what happened before us and what was never processed by the previous generations a long time ago. Among the imprints mentioned earlier, there is also the lineage and the many layers we cross to get here on earth. It is during the third semester of pregnancy that babies are the most sensitive to their ancestral legacy: it can be positive and supportive or negative. Some of this legacy might encompass times when ancestors were disempowered, lived in terror, were abusive, lived through natural disasters, were persecuted during wars, were victims of genocide etc…
During this time in utero, babies encode a minimum of three generations of ancestral wishes, fears and imaginations. (2) Bert Hellinger (Family Constellation expert) says that babies pick up influences from their previous generations and bloodlines in a “loving attempt to heal their parents’ past”.
Conception is the first vibration of welcome (2).
In conclusion: Babies are powerful sentient beings. Clinical sessions have shown that the period of 0 to 18 months in an infant’s lifetime are highly precious in forming identity beliefs and behavior responses. Any nervous system overwhelm that occurred during that time creates brain states and body-centered imprints that govern emotions and behaviors under stress. Knowing this can help one understand and offer support at a more effective level. Listening for and understanding how these early imprints influence behavior help treatment address the earliest of perceptions and behavior response patterns. Getting to the roots of inaccurate identity beliefs and meaning making constructs support true change and self-care. (2)
This is where PPN somatic psychology can help. The imprint-based energy blocks can be discharged, the residual shock imprints that came into place as long life-protecting habits and that hide overwhelming moments can be dissolved in safety. And the misconceptions about Self and our place in the world can be repaired.
Members of the pre- and perinatal field include MD’s, psychotherapists, doulas, midwives, educators and parents. They are sharing knowledge that experiences encoded during pregnancy, birth and early post-birth shape behavior, in hopes to influence protocol. (2)
Gratitude to our teachers and practitioners, midwives and educators and the PPN pioneers in North America who paid attention to the lives of moms and babies:
William Emerson, David Chamberlain, Thomas Verny, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Ray Castellino (www.castellinotrainings.com), John and Anna Chitty and the attachment geniuses John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.
Gratitude also to the neuroscientists Allan Schore, Daniel Siegel, Stephen Porges, Bruce Lipton and the many others who have contributed to improving processes in the PPN world.
Some material reprinted with permission of Myrna Martin (Thank you Teacher): www.Myrnamartin.net
(1) Maguire, M.J. and Peralta, F. and M., (2019) Infant and Toddler Development from Conception to Age 3. What Babies ask of us. New York, N.Y. Teachers College Press. P 134
(2) Brook, A. (2014) Birth’s Hidden Legacy. Volume 1. Boulder, CO. Smart Body Books