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Becoming a parent can radically transform you. But long before you are even pregnant, you can begin thinking about how having a family may change the way you approach your life.
Naturally, you want to give your child as healthy a start as possible. Because you may be pregnant for several weeks before you are fully aware that you have conceived, preconception is the time to start examining the kinds of things your baby will be exposed to during pregnancy. At the same time, you can begin thinking about what having a family means to you -- so you can start cultivating the qualities in yourself that will help you become the kind of parent you hope to be. Knowing that you want to create a certain kind of family life will allow you to consider what changes you need to make to bring your baby into a sensitive, responsive, and loving environment.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
Contrary to Freud's notion that every baby is a kind of tabula rasa or blank slate, recent research shows that infants have awareness and consciousness while in the womb. Studies have shown that babies respond to music in the womb and react to loud noises and bright light. They have even been observed to smile and to cry in utero. In one experiment by Italian researcher Allesandra Piontelli in 1992, a pair of twins, observed with ultrasound throughout their gestation, played affectionately with each other, touching each other cheek to cheek on either side of the membrane that separated them. Later, as toddlers, their favorite game was sitting, separated by a curtain, and rubbing their cheeks together.
If our memory begins in the womb, then it stands to reason that each of us might remember our own birth on an unconscious level. Indeed, children under three have been able to give detailed accounts of their experiences in utero and during their birth -- complete with facts they could not have otherwise known. Under hypnosis, even adults have produced vivid recollections of their birth experiences.
Elaine and Thomas
On a long car trip, Eric, then three years old, suddenly asked us from the back seat, "Do you remember the day I was born?"
"Yes, do you?" we asked.
Eric responded, "Yes. It was dark and I was up real high, and I couldn't get through the door. I was scared, so finally I jumped and got through the door and then I was OK. Were you happy then?"
"Yes, we were very happy," we both responded, in shocked disbelief.
The interesting thing is, he remained high in my pelvis throughout twenty hours of labor, until very suddenly his position changed and he was born.
Linda Mathison, "Birth Memories: Does Your Child Remember?" Mothering, Fall 1981.
The Womb: Baby's First Room
The womb, then, is the baby's first environment, one in which he appears to have consciousness and feelings. As Leni Schwartz writes in Bonding Before Birth, "The moment of conception, the process of growing in our mother's womb, reacting to her hormones, digestion, smells, tastes, the air she breathes, her movements and emotions for nine formative months, and experiencing birth, are all part of our unconscious, affective memories."
Just as you want to bring your child into a safe, healthy, supportive home, you want to make sure your child's first environment is a nurturing place. Thomas Verny asserts in The Secret Life of the Unborn Child that the womb sets the stage for the child's future development: "If it is a warm, loving environment, the child is likely to expect the outside world to be the same.... If that environment has been hostile, the child will anticipate that his new world will be equally uninviting."
Such research suggests that we carry memories of the womb with us -- memories that can influence the way in which we develop. It also suggests that you can create a nurturing place in the womb through your positive feelings about your baby. Your emotions of love and protectiveness towards your infant will be communicated to the baby in utero. Conversely, feelings of fear, anxiety, and ambiguity can affect the baby. Loving, nurturing thoughts can go a long way towards counteracting the effect on the baby of stresses that the mother can't control. Even if you are under extreme external stress, have financial problems or illness in the family, or feel ambivalent about the baby, you can protect your baby by keeping your feelings about him positive and loving. You can't control the external factors that are affecting you, but you can control
whether or not they affect your baby.
Equally important are your partner's feelings. One study indicates that women involved in stormy relationships run a 237 percent greater risk of bearing a psychologically or physically damaged child. A pregnant woman needs emotional support, and the baby's father is often the most important source of that support.
Food: Fuel for a New Life
Most of us readily recognize that a healthy diet is critically important during pregnancy. But it is also an excellent idea to start eliminating toxins from your diet and begin developing good eating habits while you are trying to conceive. Eat a wide variety of foods found in as natural a state as possible. Whenever they are available, choose unprocessed, pesticide-free, organic foods. Try to eat food that is locally grown and in season -- check out your local farmers' market. Avoid additives and preservatives.
Vegetarian, vegan, and macrobiotic diets are all safe to follow during preconception and pregnancy as long as you are careful about following a balanced diet. You can get ample protein, for instance, from concentrated protein sources like tofu, tempeh, seitan, and nuts. Your calcium requirement can come from fresh greens sprinkled with sesame seeds and from sea vegetables, which are high in iron as well as calcium. Vegetarian diets have the added bonus of including lots of folic acid, which is necessary in the early development of the fetus. And, don't forget about Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) which make up the membrane of every cell in the body as well as providing raw material for energy production. Make sure to get enough unrefined oils and fats. Good sources include sesame oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soy oil, flaxseed oil, organic butter, coconut oil, and various nut butters.
Although many women take prenatal vitamins as a precaution when they are pregnant or trying to conceive, current guidelines from the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., note that they are not absolutely necessary. A well-balanced diet is the best way to get vitamins and minerals, as the body absorbs and assimilates them better through food sources, with little risk of overdose. In fact, vitamin supplementation can have adverse effects. For example, too much iron can inhibit the absorption of zinc, and high doses of vitamin A may interfere with fetal development. If you do decide to take a supplement, be sure you do not take more than the recommended dosage and be especially sure that you do not think of the supplements as a cure-all. No amount of supplementation can make up for a poor diet.
Besides making sure to include healthy foods in your diet, you should definitely give up tobacco and alcohol, and limit or avoid caffeine during pregnancy and preconception. After all, you may be pregnant before you realize it -- and the first trimester is a critical time in the baby's development. Smoking greatly increases the risk of spontaneous abortion and fetal death
as well as complications during labor. Babies whose mothers smoked during pregnancy may be born at a lower birthweight and have continuing health problems into childhood. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the name given to a host of ills in children, including mental retardation and growth deficiencies, that are a direct result of their mothers' alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Caffeine has been shown to increase the incidence of birth defects among laboratory rats.
If a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine with dinner is part of your daily routine, eliminating these things may be hard for you. Try some healthy substitutes: a mug of herbal tea (preferably red raspberry and nettles -- see "Herbs That Help," page 8) in the morning; sparkling mineral water with lime at night. Instead of putting your feet up with a cigarette after dinner, try taking a walk around the neighborhood. Exercise has the added advantage of producing natural endorphins, the same pleasure transmitters that are factors in addiction to cigarettes and caffeine.
A few months ago my thirteen-year-old daughter asked if I had ever smoked. I admitted that I did until I got pregnant, at which point I gave it up for good. She looked at me admiringly and said, "You did that for me?" There is a beauty in knowing you're doing the best for your child, and in effect saying, "I respect you and love you, and I want to take care of you from the day you're conceived."
Start getting in the habit of drinking lots of water now -- you'll need it when you're pregnant and nursing. Spring water and well water are best. If your tap water comes from municipal water system, you can have the water checked for things like lead, nitrates, and trihalomethanes, which have been linked with a higher miscarriage rate. If these are present, you can always use a water filter or buy bottled water instead.
HEALTHY EATING FOR TWO
Following are some suggestions for a balanced preconception and pregnancy diet for different food lifestyles. Key advice is to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, making sure you include a variety of foods from the groups listed below:
Calcium. Found in dairy products, tofu processed with calcium, soy milk, soybeans, sea vegetables, sesame seeds (tahini), almonds, dark leafy greens, salmon, mackerel, sardines, beans, lentils, blackstrap molasses, and dried fruit.
Protein. Chicken, fish, red meat, dairy products, eggs...