Not A Blank Slate, The Secret Life of The Unborn Child

Louisa001 The Hostile Environment, Book Reviews, The Adoptee Journey

Much more is known now about the life of a baby before birth, than it was when I was adopted in 1975. Back then the social workers told my adoptive mother that I wouldn't know the difference between her and my biological mother (incorrect) and I was a blank slate (also incorrect).

Regarding the latter, professionals including those popularized across the web like Sigmund Freud, postulated that a baby's personality didn't start to develop until 2-3 years old. Even though much of his work has been debunked, the debunking isn't as well-known as Freud's work is. Above all the notion of the baby being a blank slate plays into human nature's hands; it's far easier for folk to deny they've done harm by separating a baby from their mother, than to address the harm they've supported, especially when the separation suits people with more privilege. Great evil is thus perpetuated.

However, the amount of pushback adoptees face when challenging the socially acceptable narrative of "happy-ever-after" families still astounds me because the scientific research proving the adverse consequences of adoption has been out for decades! Surely the first people who should be reading a book called "The Secret of the Unborn Child" (published in 1982), are professionals involved in baby placement and child care. But no, the people who read this stuff are people like me, who search for answers to their invisible trauma. We are the ones who have to live with the consequences of their wilful ignorance.

For adoptees, this book is an eye opener and puts words to what many of us have already felt in our bodies. Here were some a-ha moments for me, maybe they'll be a-ha moments for you too.

What was Life Like Before Birth?

It's well established that baby in utero perceives light and sound1see Babies Recognize Mom's Voice from the Womb but other studies also show that they can remember and learn. This was demonstrated by a study where researchers exposed the pregnant mothers to a loud sound several times which made their babies kick, and later introduced a vibration at the same time (which would not normally cause any reaction). The babies quickly created an automatic association between the vibration and the sound, so that after a while they kicked even when exposed to the vibration, and after the sound was taken away (this is called a conditioned or learned response, see Pavlov's dog).

Even more astonishing is their nuanced emotional landscape. It appears that the mother's experience of pregnancy, whether a happy or an unhappy one, wanted or unwanted, is also directly passed down to the foetus. How so?

For a long while it had been hypothesized that because a pregnant woman is so very uncomfortable when trying to sleep at night, the baby is also uncomfortable and kicks a great deal (thus making everything even more uncomfortable). The mother's physical discomfort is communicated via an unsettled and elevated heartbeat as well as via hormones through the placenta acting "like a circulating fire alarm". The same is true for emotional discomfort (stress & anxiety), even if the foetus has little notion of how to interepret the hormonal signals being sent, it knows this is not a resting state, and is therefore unusual. Through association with physical sensation therefore, it learns to associate those hormones with discomfort.

Yet not all foetal experience of emotional discomfort is equal. Sometimes, the discomfort appears to be mitigated by the attitudes of the pregnant mother.

Of particular interest to adoptees, must be the studies which involve 'maternal attitudes to their unborn children' because biological mothers who intend to relinquish their child through adoption might be disproportionately more likely not to want the pregnancy (this opinion is my own, but surely an obvious one).

In 1973, it had already been established that negative emotions adversely effected physical health. So in a series of studies conducted by a Dr Stott, he thought "a child's physical and emotional state at birth and in the years immediately following it, would provide a good idea of the kind of maternal messages he received in utero - and how accurately he perceived them."

Unsurprisingly, short-term stresses had not affected babies as much as long-term ones. But he was further able to distinguish between two types of long-term stress:

Prolonged upsets that did not directly threaten a woman's emotional security, such as the illness of a close relative, had little or no effect on her unborn child whereas long-term personal stresses frequently did.

The environment of the womb itself sets up an emotional predisposition (fearful or optimistic) and also expectations of how the world will operate in general, that's to say either friendly or hostile.
As a conclusion, Dr Stott believed children were able to sense whether the mother's distress was threatening to them at a personal level, which after all would perfectly align with the way our survival mechanisms operate. Then in 1975, Dr Lukesch followed a sample of 2000 women through pregnancy and wrote her thesis on maternal attitudes in pregnancy. These results were definitive.

All her subjects were from the same economic background, all were equally intelligent, and all had the same degree and qulity of prenatal care. The only major distinguishing factor was their attitudes towards their unborn children, and that turned our to have a critical effect on their infants.

This was again corroborated by another study around the same time by a Dr. Rottman. Through psychological testing, he divided his group of women into four categories (ideal mothers, cool mothers, ambivalent mothers and catastrophic mothers). Ideal mothers, i.e. those who wanted their pregnancies, had the healthiest physical and emotional children, whilst cool and ambivalent mothers who had mixed feelings about their pregnancy had less healthy children, and finally catastophic mothers who did not want the pregnancy "bore the highest rate of premature, low-weight, and emotionally disturbed infants."

The implications of this now classic study are enormous for an adoptee because it means "our likes, dislikes, fears and phobias" begin to form in the womb. The environment of the womb itself sets up an emotional predisposition (fearful or optimistic) and also expectations of how the world will operate in general, that's to say either friendly or hostile.

A baby's mental model which is informed by a fearful predisposition and the expectation of a hostile world, will only be reinforced when the next major event to occur is his birth - stressful for the majority of women - followed by the loss of his mother and any familiar environment. For adoptees it indicates that many of us felt our survival was threatened before we were even born. We were born on the lookout for anymore potential threats. And what's more, whilst the correlations aren't perfect, children like us with an anxious disposition are more likely to become creative, emotional and highly sensitive teenagers, disproportionately affected by any changes in our environment, and more likely therefore to fall into an almost inevitable cycle of anxiety, chronic illness and complex, but invisible trauma.

All quotes in this article are taken from "The Secret Life of The Unborn Child" 

This post has been incorporated into and expanded upon in The Adoptee Journey Newsletter #001