Parental Psychology

“Your life will never be the same!”  Raise your hand if you’ve heard that before!  Better yet, reply back with “tell me how, and why is that the one thing you have to say?”  That is such a broad proclamation made to so many expectant mothers throughout their pregnancy.  As if you weren’t already aware of the phenomenon, jaded parents confirm your regressions.  The mother goes on, visits her care provider, selects baby names, and prepares for birth, always with this statement in the back of her mind.  She thinks, “will I lose the weight,” “will I lose my friends,” “will I be able to do this or that,” “how will it change,” and “what’s my life going be like?”  It’s unnecessary added stress to what should be an educational and spiritually personal time in a woman’s life.  Pregnancy should be a time of reflection and growth contributing to astounding self-awareness. 

Sadly, American culture has developed statements like these, skewing the view of pregnancy, birth, and parenting just as labor horror stories scare women into losing faith in their own abilities.  Pregnancy is a beautiful experience, birth is empowering, and parenting is the most rewarding career you can accept; a career that requires all your emotional, biological, and psychological skills you have or will ever obtain – more than any other task or job you may encounter.  Make no mistake, your life will never be the same; but it is nothing to be scared of, and nothing that you should try to avoid.  This is your journey into motherhood and becoming a parent. 

According to Dr. Louann (author of The Female Brain), a female experiences a variety of psychological changes during pregnancy and even prior to conception.  Amazingly, babies are a little contagious.  A woman surrounded by babies and new mothers will experience altering neurological signals that trigger her maternal instincts (and hormones) and will to conceive.  Throughout pregnancy, her hormones are constantly changing, and her brain is being "re-wired" for motherhood.  The amazing female body naturally develops mechanisms to stay calm with a crying baby, learn their baby’s cries, and create a relationship like no other with their child.  This goes against the implications of “placenta brain” many women are falsely accused of during pregnancy.  Realistically, this concludes just the opposite; women increase their knowledge and awareness, only, their focus is on a whole new being and responsibility.  (1)

Furthermore, infants undergo a relatable psychological change during the pre and postnatal periods.  In the article, The Neurobiology of Attachment and Early Personality Organization, based on his own research, Allan N. Schore, Ph.D states “the human brain growth spurt, which begins in the last quarter of pregnancy and extends into the second year… represents the early critical period for the experience-dependent maturation of the right hemisphere, which is dominant for processing socio-emotional and bodily information, stress coping functions, and self-regulation.”  The babies are being wired to have their needs met so the stronger the bond is created during pregnancy, and especially during birth and within the first hour of birth, the stronger the care response will be from the mother and the more her child will develop into a positive and psychologically responsive individual.  (2)

Studies also indicate birth experiences affect the ability of the mother to be “emotionally available to her baby,” says Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.    The start of interventions can cause a cascade of events, and are often the cause of negative birth experiences (3).  Fear plays a large role in this waterfall effect as fear increases tension, which increases pain, which, in turn, increases fear.  If we reduce this fear, we enhance relaxation and help the mother avoid unnecessary interventions that may create a less-than-desirable labor and birth.  In addition, a study by the Center for Research and Development and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology concluded the release of the “love hormone,” oxytocin, is tremendously reduced in medicated births.  Likewise, cesarean birth inhibits the increase of oxytocin, lowering the emotionally “high” feeling many women of natural births describe (4).  Accordingly, it is important that care providers and labor assistants do as much as they can to provide a comfortable and pleasant atmosphere for the laboring mother, improving the rate of positive birth outcomes.

Breastfeeding is also a wonderful influence on the psychology of being a parent, and continues for as long as the mother chooses to prolong the breastfeeding relationship.  Many are aware that breastfed babies will comfort nurse for numerous and long periods of time, but this comforting is reciprocal for the mother.  Oxytocin, again, is released during breastfeeding, creating a very calming effect in the mother which amplifies the mother’s desire to continue breastfeeding and nurture the child.  Furthermore, the knowledge that you are able to provide vital nutrients to your baby outside of pregnancy may be equally important to mothers who may have been unable to birth naturally, suffer postpartum blues, or unable to stay at home and raise their child due to length of maternity leave or financial stability.

Aside from the biological components that affect nurturing, it is, as time has proven, completely possible to affect the way you love your child through alternate bonding techniques.  This is what gives fathers the ability to love their children as well as friends, relatives, and adoptive parents.  Similarly, these methods, or the lack there of, provide the means to exhaust the love of parenting.  A father can enjoy rubbing the mother’s belly during pregnancy, attend prenatal appointments, and become actively involved in perinatal classes.  Breastfeeding is not simply a time for the mother, either.  The father can learn about breastfeeding to be a supportive figure in the early postpartum stages.  He can help during the night by bringing baby to mother if baby is not co-sleeping.  A father’s involvement increases his love for the child, and also enhances the love the mother has for the father.  According to many studies, including the ongoing study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a clear link is indicated between marital quality and the parent-adolescent relationship (5).  With quality communication, equal involvement, and a positive intimate relationship between the parents, the child benefits through increased nurturing and shows improved psychological development.

So, what does this mean?

  • Start bonding early!  The more time you take in learning about your child, the more you increase this mothering change and the less chance of postpartum depression concerns.  By increasing your knowledge, you also increase your chances of having a natural birth.
  • Get Daddy involved!  Bring along your partner to prenatal appointments, and childbirth classes.  Share in reading birth books, and let daddy remind you to do your prenatal exercises each night – or even have him join in so you’re not alone.  Go on a labor/delivery hospital tour and interview pediatricians together.  Get on the same page in your parenting styles in the beginning to ease tension when your new baby arrives. 
  • Document the experience!  Start a pregnancy blog, scrapbook, videos, and take pictures.  This is a great way to relieve stress and allow your family and friends to be a part of the experience.  You may not like your belly, but it will be a great story to share when your little one gets older.  Talk to your belly, play music, and read books to your growing baby.  Not only will this start the bonding process early, but this will allow you to know your child before they are born, and help calm your baby while in the womb.
  • Prepare for a biological birth!  Read books, search for positive birth stories, and attend a weekly-series independent perinatal education class.  The more knowledge and practice you have, the better your outcome will be.  This is also a great way to meet new parents of children close to your child’s age, beginning a great relationship for future play dates.
  • Breastfeed!  Breastfeeding has values way beyond the known facts of immunology.  There are a plethora of affects for the child, mother, and father including more sleep, less crying, and a unique experience that increases understanding of the needs of the baby.  One of the important things to remember is breastfeeding can be difficult or painful in the beginning, without help.  It is very important that the father and postpartum assistants be familiar with breastfeeding, and that the family gets in touch with local groups, consultants, and/or experienced mothers before the birth of their child.  With the right support and education, breastfeeding will be second nature in no time.  La Leche League always invites expectant mothers to learn about the techniques and benefits early, and develop a support network before the big event happens.
  • "Spoil" your baby.  Your baby's brain is designed to have their needs met.  They most certainly expect you to learn how to communicate with them, which does not only involve learning their cries, but more importantly their cues!  Babies have their own unique language, and crying is a last resort.  This only increases the baby's ability to bond with loved ones and develop a healthy attitude towards care providers and others.  These cues are their survival mechanisms - because without them, we wouldn't know their needs.  For the first few years, the sooner you meet your baby's needs, the happier everyone is, and the better this little person's brain will develop.  So, get attached!  It is such a short period of time where these little ones will want to be around you constantly.
  • Join your community!  There are many organizations for mothers, parents, and children.  If there are no divisions in your community, create one!  Set up play dates, mom meetings, and meet like-minded people that will become your new best friends.  This not only gives you something extra to do, but gives you insight into other parent’s techniques and solutions to common concerns like discipline, potty-training, or even fun and low-cost activities. 
  • Make it Last!!!  Involved parenting doesn’t stop when your children begin walking and talking.  Your grandma’s may not have needed books, but there is nothing wrong with wanting a new approach to an old way.  Continue reading and learning, as parenting will be an ever-changing experience as your children grow and develop.  Look for new ways of interacting, and keep parenting interesting so you don’t become that cynical mother with sarcastic advice for expectant parents.