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Limbic imprinting – how does birth impact us?

Limbic Imprinting at Birth
Touch, says more than words.

By Sophie Fletcher

We’ve just had a really interesting discussion about limbic imprinting on our practitioners forum.  There has been quite a lot of research, more than you would think that examines long term impact of experiences in the womb and just after birth. This form of work is called pre and perinatal psychology.

Amongst many other things the research explores such things as how stress in the womb impacts on brain development, the impact of painful procedures at birth on pain thresholds, even how the type of drugs given during labour correlate with drug abuse later on. If you want to learn more have a look at Janus’s The Enduring effect of Prenatal Experience or Kelly and Verny’s ‘The Secret Life of the Unborn Child’.

While I think that this sort of research on limbic imprinting is very important, and we should be aware of it, it shouldn’t cause fear, worry or guilt.  Sometimes mothers do not learn about their different options until they have had a baby and look back wishing that they could change it; sometimes babies do have life saving interventions, and we should focus not on how damaging that can be psychologically, but how we as loving, mindful mothers can tune into our babies and reduce the impact of any such interventions.  Which we definitely can.

Sometimes we can’t change the path but we change how we respond to limbic imprinting

Some of you may assume that I had a tranquil waterbirth at home, but in fact my first son was born before I knew anything apart from how to say “yes, I consent” and he was born by caesarean, on Christmas day, as a footling breech into a theatre with bright lights and midwifes wearing tinsel. I worried for months that the reason my wound was taking so long to heal was because some tinsel had dropped into me.

The second time I did it differently. I’d been using  hypnosis mp3s from about week 15 and I was very very relaxed during pregnancy, not blinking an eye when my waters broke at 32 weeks.   No amount of leg crossing stopped my second son being born as a VBAC, a great birth in itself, but he was welcomed by a hoard of paediatricians, who waved him in front of me like a trophy, dumped him on my chest for a token minute or two, then whisked him off to NICU.

But it was ok, I was prepared, I had been using hypnosis from very early on and I was not stressed or panicky; my head was clear and I knew what I had to do, I tuned into my instincts. But at night he was on his own in an incubator, while I was somewhere else upstairs. I now believe we are connected at a much deeper level and experiences since then that have happened, ones that I cannot explain away, give rise to that view; my mother actually refers to the invisible umbilical cord as a lifelong communication system.

The danger of misrepresenting research on limbic imprinting

In the debates around limbic imprinting, there are some people who I deeply respect but can be zealots around how a poor experience in utero or at birth can affect people for the rest of their lives.  This morning I read this

“If our first impressions of being in the body are anything less than loving (for example, painful, frightening or lonely), then those impressions will imprint as our valid experience of love. It will be immediately coded into our nervous system as a comfort zone, acting as a surrogate for love and nurturing, regardless of how undesirable the experience actually was”

It disturbed me because the intent is that if this happens we can’t change it, that our children are less somehow because of their experience at birth.  What statements like this neglect to address is the remarkable plasticity of our brains, which is at its most potent between 0-3 years of age.

So how can we see  limbic imprinting differently and more positively?

One of our practitioners, Guin a clinical psychologist who has done additional training around this area, described these changes to me in this way “One suggestion I found helpful was the idea that with difficult early experiences it’s not so much an instant effect that is permanently wired into the brain, but a bit like a rivulet running down a mountain, it will tend to follow the same path – ie. the more the baby experiences responsive parenting, the more this will strengthen the neural pathways that are connected up in response to that. “

Natalie, a midwife who teaches our class,  “ One of the things I like about  “The Inner World of the Unborn Child’ is that it gives suggestions of how to change the unborn baby’s experience. For example, stress during pregnancy. He is very practical that even with the best will in the world women will experience stress during pregnancy but states if the mother communicates love and acceptance to her child she will protect the baby from the effects of stress. This really helped me during my own pregnancy. I was mindful of how I was feeling and empowered by having the knowledge to do something about it. I had a complex visualisation of transferring love from me and my husband to Noah. I believe, that is how we should be using the research.”

How psychological preparation can help

Psychological preparation that helps you understand how you can help your baby in the womb and after they are born, by learning how to relax, connect with them and to be loving and compassionate can really help reduce any other effects that you are concerned about. This has a positive affect on limbic imprinting. We are human after all, we do our best, but sometimes things happen that we don’t expect or can’t prepare for.  Learning the value of mindfulness and being in each moment enables you to be open to the experience and to be able to respond compassionately.

A birth with intervention, can make it harder than a straightforward normal birth, but as a mother you become a vessel for that child physically and emotionally, good preparation helps free up the emotional space for you to do that – however, the birth is.

Limbic Imprinting at Birth
Kangaroo Care, the beat of a mothers heart calms, and her breasts change their temperature to act as natural incubator

My 7 year old who was separated at birth, enjoyed kangaroo care, supported by wonderful midwives, I made sure that something with my smell on was in the incubator, and that I pumped my boobs like there was no tomorrow in my own private pumping room until my milk flowed so that I could breastfeed him.

Then I strapped a tube to my breast, while he was tube fed, right by my nipple in those first couple of days and dropped my breastmilk through it before his sucking reflex kicked in. We were home with breastfeeding established within 6 days.

I have no doubt it was because I was a calm ship for him amidst it all, and that this calm ship, his steady anchor in all of that unfamiliarity, was the thing that carried him home and nurtured him from then onwards.

He is now an incredibly sociable, secure and loving child. People warm to him immediately, he exudes joy and happiness. I have absolutely no worries about him as a mother.

When I read about limbic imprinting, I became aware that there is much we can do as human beings, that we are not passive journeyers but active participants who are evolving and changing all the time.  We are imprinting, throughout our lives. Phobias, for example, can happen at anytime, and are a form of imprinting, but can be reduced or even completely eliminated in a couple of hours with hypnosis. For me this says everything about how our brain is receptive to changes.  It can get slower as we get older; working with hypnosis on people before the age of 30 sees much quicker results, but even up to our 90’s, as demonstrated in research in book, Sharon Begley’s The Plastic Mind we can change our automatic responses, effectively rewiring our brain.

What can you do now?

The best things to do for your baby during your pregnancy are to spend time relaxing and connecting with your baby, let go of panic, worry or distress.  If you have a stressful job, don’t beat yourself up, but find ways of reducing that stress – employers should have a responsibility to ensure a stress free or stress reduced environment for you and your baby.  If, after baby is born, you are still concerned, be that responsive mindful parent, responding to your babies cues and needs. Perhaps consider a class like, BabyCalm or even visit someone trained in early parenting, perhaps have a birth review (this can help you see things more objectively and help you move on) or even rebirthing.

Most of all be aware that a baby with a compassionate and loving parent cannot fail to thrive however their birth was, my son is evidence of that.


Limbic Imprinting at Birth
A little ball of happiness



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