05.21.12 Parenting

Connecting with Baby Before Birth

BY Jessica Zucker, Ph. D.

Ubiquitous prenatal gadgets tempt pregnant women at every turn as the market is saturated with ever-changing options for Mommy, Daddy and Baby. Stroller technology alone is enough to baffle the mind — maybe next year we’ll see an organic, Tempur-Pedic option for some ungodly amount of money that recycles used diapers and will make the Orbit seem old school.

Advice from sisters, mothers, friends and countless strangers streams in as our bellies expand – solicited or not. Somehow, even when seasoned women talk about their choices and experiences in pregnancy, labor or motherhood, there is often a tinge of pressure. The subtext, consciously or not, might be urging the budding mom-to-be to “be like me” or conversely, “I have so many regrets, don’t do what I did”. Or the feedback might even be paradoxical: “You should do what I did, even though I don’t feel great about the choices I made. I wish I knew what you know now.” Of course, these loved ones (or even the strangers on the street) don’t intend on creating insecurities, often contributing to anxiety or even egging on feelings of overwhelm and depression. Nevertheless, some pregnant women report having an uncomfortable sense of dis-ease in their psyches as they traverse this transformational time in their lives.

Pregnancy is an opportune time for culture to invite women to focus on the developing baby in utero, to slow down and create space for prenatal bonding, reflection and moments of wonderment. Instead, there is often societal chatter about what to buy, how to decorate, as well as inherited concerns about how to lose the “baby weight” even though baby has yet to arrive. All of these factors contribute to externally focused desires. A mantra missing from mainstream society is one of trust: trusting oneself and carving out time to get familiar with feelings associated with prenatal parenting. Who am I as a woman, a mother-to-be, a partner? How does my childhood impact how I see and understand myself? Are issues lingering from my family life that might be worth attending to now, before I blaze a new path of parenthood? What kind of role model do I want to be for my child? If I find myself concerned about enduring postpartum struggles, how might I bolster my internal resources now so that I feel more centered when baby is in my arms? Though these questions might stimulate a variety of complex feelings, the benefits of exploring these emotions during pregnancy will strengthen your core, subsequently engendering a more mindful childhood for your baby. In-depth psychological investigation is potentially a lifelong preventative investment, paying dividends along the way.

Research reveals that perinatal and postpartum mood disorders are often linked to: striving for perfection, unexplored and often unrealistic expectations of control, anxiety and depression during pregnancy, prior history of depression, family history of depression, ambivalence around issues of mutual dependency, helplessness, history of early loss, trauma or abuse, previous bouts of postpartum depression, obstetrical complications and lack of social support.

The prognosis for postpartum blues and depression is directly tied to the swiftness with which one addresses the symptoms. In other words, responding to internal uneasiness straight away could make a world of difference. Taking steps to deepen your understanding of who you are during this monumental milestone – pregnant and on the precipice of parenthood – can harness confidence and promote grace.

Here are some psychological meditations for cultivating a conscious pregnancy and postpartum period, with baby in mind:

Be connected. Being present, being attuned to your body, your developing baby and your breath can cultivate embodied awareness. Try to take time each day (even if it’s only for two minutes) during pregnancy and beyond to notice your when you are feeling present and when you are distracted.

Be true. Sentimentality around pregnancy and parenting can make moms-to-be feel alienated. Some women don’t necessarily feel overjoyed by all of the elements of pregnancy or postpartum changes. If you’re not 100% excited all the time, that’s okay. Be who you are. Take time to reflect on what you truly feel, what your gut reactions are and what feels right for you along the parenting path. For those of you who thoroughly enjoy pregnancy or who want to be a full-time stay at home mom, be true to those feelings. Honor what is deeply you.

Be bold. Step into uncharted territory within. Mindfully wonder about your enthusiasm, your fears, your identity, your personal history. Challenge yourself to rest in uncomfortable places internally. Ask for help when needed.

Be curious. Attachment and bonding during pregnancy and in the early moments of your child’s life sets the framework for your relationship with your baby and their relationship with the world. Cultivating curiosity while your baby is developing in your body through noticing prenatal movements, talking or singing to your baby in your belly, or touching your baby “bump” as you acknowledge this burgeoning life within can create a sense of connectivity. Reflect on attachment relationships in your family of origin and consider addressing issues that might be pulling at your heartstrings. Wonder about how you might nurture your relationship with your child similarly and differently than what you remember experiencing in your childhood. Consider the subtleties of bonding and attachment which might be as simple as gazing into your babies eyes, or narrating your actions or thoughts as you transition baby from one activity to another, or making weekly visits to your psychotherapist while pregnant to explore unhealed challenges that might inhibit the flow of attachment.

Be generous. Making sure you feel soothed, balanced or attuned with yourself might be just what you need to help stave off postpartum challenges. Taking care while pregnant may plant seeds of mind-body health and well-being. Some fortifying steps to take could include: psychotherapy individually or with your partner, meditation, massage, yoga, acupuncture, thoughtfully considering your birth wish list or pondering who you might want supporting you at your baby’s birth.

Being present with yourself during pregnancy will help you to be present with your child in parenthood. With the aim of fostering a dynamic bond with your baby, examining your internal landscape during the prenatal phase can yield increased clarity and space for connecting with this new addition to your family.

Emotional well-being is something we can endeavor for throughout pregnancy. As far as whether or not the next generation of strollers has a built-in iPod and solar panels is something we can leave up to the stroller gurus.

Featured image by foox404 on Flickr

Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s health with a focus on perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, transitions in motherhood, and early parent-child attachment.  Earning a Master’s degree at New York University in Public Health with a focus on international reproductive issues led to working for the Harvard School of Public Health.  After several years of international public health work focused on maternal issues, Dr. Zucker pursued a Master’s degree in Psychology and Human Development at Harvard University with the aim of shifting her work from a global perspective to a more interpersonal focus.  In her clinical practice, she merges her expertise in reproductive health and postpartum psychology.  Dr. Zucker’s research on female identity development came to fruition in her award-winning dissertation while completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.  Jessica is a published writer and a contributor to The Huffington Post and PBS’ This Emotional Life.  Dr. Zucker is currently writing her first book about mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body (Routledge).  Jessica consults on numerous projects pertaining to maternal health and the motherhood continuum. Web: www.drjessicazucker.com Twitter: www.twitter.com/drzucker


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