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Do babies remember birth?

Do Babies Remember Birth?

Newborns are far more aware in the womb and at birth than for which they have been credited. They arrive in the world not just feeling, sensing and reacting, but thinking, communicating, and even remembering.

A new book, Babies Remember Birth, recounts the latest scientific evidence that, even in the fetal stage, deep in the womb, the unborn experiences a wide variety of emotions.

When a baby is born, it is anatomically complete. The brain is fully formed -- although its capacity will grow and expand with experience and stimuli. It is also logical to assume that consciousness of the birth event has been etched into the brain.

Otto Rank, an early disciple of Sigmund Freud, based his concept of psychoanalysis upon the trauma of birth. To that initial shock of birth he attributed the future development of personality. Rank believed that deeply inbedded in the unconscious mind a record of prenatal and postnatal memories existed. How the individual adjusts to the jolt, the expulsion from a veritable Paradise, determines the degree of neuroses and other mental complexes.

The author, David Chamberlain, Ph.D., writes: "Babies know more than they are supposed to know. Minutes after birth, a baby can pick out its mother's face ... from a gallery of photos. Babies recognize the gender of other babies, even when cross-dressed, provided they are moving -- something adults cannot do.

"They are mentally curious and eager to learn," he observes. "Consider how smoothly the senses are coordinated at birth: eyes turn with the head in the direction of a sound; hands go up to protect the eyes from bright light; the first time at the breast, the baby knows how to breathe in perfect synchrony."

The territory of life before birth has been extensively charted. With the invention of the scanning electron microscope, fiber optics and special lenses, ultrasound imaging, measuring devices, and new laboratory techniques -- all parts of the physical system before birth -- are available for study. The baby's many talents can now be scrutinized.

Studies show that about fourteen weeks after conception the sense of taste develops. The sense of hearing is established at about twenty weeks. The sense of smell, it is now known, also evolves during this gestation period. Learning before birth is an ongoing process, which means that memory is already at work. There is no learning without memory.

Among the sensational discoveries about newborns is that they are social beings who can form close relationships, Dr. Chamberlain notes. "They are capable of integrating complex information from many sources and, with a little help from their friends, begin regulating themselves and their environment." No one doubts that babies express themselves forcefully from the moment of birth, exhibit preferences, and begin influencing those around them.

Chamberlain is emphatic in denying the myth that babies don't feel pain to the degree that others do. For too long, he deplores, have anesthetics been denied to infants undergoing surgery because doctors assumed that babies were unaware of pain.

In 1975 French obstetrician Frederick Leboyer called for a new approach to birth without violence. His colleagues denied the need for change and publicly recited the myth that babies really do not feel or care. Their cries of pain, Chamberlain says, are real. Babies are not unfeeling; it is we who have been unfeeling.

Probably the most damaging myths about newborns are those estimating mental development. Their brains were considered primitive and poorly developed. Because the baby's brain is about one-quarter of its eventual weight and volume, it is assumed to be incapable of "higher functions" of learning and memory.

For a hundred years this assumption has governed both medicine and psychology. The misconception supported abuses in obstetrics and pediatrics. Without a developed brain, the myth persisted, babies could have no experiences, accumulate no history, possess no self-consciousness or intelligence.

This fallacy has delayed the beginning of active parenthood, the author complains, and has prevented public recognition that newborns are persons. The reasoning: no brain, no person, no need for parenting.

In the past researchers have made at least one gigantic error in brain and memory study. They dissected the organ in animals and in dead newborns. But separate parts are not the entire system! When the parts are severed from each other, when they are no longer connected with the endocrine and the immune system, the truth cannot be ascertained. We now know that neuroscience, endocrinology, and immunology are all linked to the central intelligence system.

Babies do much thinking, Chamberlain insists. It is not true that in order to think language is necessary. The newborn baby reaches out, frowns, gives an inquisitive look, gurgles in satisfaction, and gasps in excitement.

Other proof that memory systems are at work has been charted by dream research teams. Infants are great dreamers. Observation by experts note that their body movements and facial expressions during sleep show they act and look just like adults during dreaming. Chamberlain asks: How can they dream without thinking?

Much of the value of Chamberlain's book is that it provides a much needed demolition of misconceptions of child rearing. One such fiction is that babies don't need their mothers. It justifies keeping newborns in hospital nurseries and away from their mothers, a practice said to be necessary to ensure a baby's health. The opposite is true.

From the mother, the baby receives antibodies that ward off infection, as well as vital individual attention not available in a nursery. Lying next to its mother, Chamberlain theorizes, the baby is able to regulate its own body temperature, metabolic rate, hormine and enzyme levels, heart rate and breathing. Separation of mothers and newborns, he declares, is a physical and emotional deprivation.

The last barrier to full recognition of infants as persons depends upon the recognition that a complex personal memory exists at birth. With such an enlightened viewpoint we can begin to think more realistically about learning potential.

A realization is needed that babies can remember vividly in terms not yet fully defined. Parents assume that what is said around an infant, how adults conduct themselves, noises and negative attitudes will not matter, that the child is too young to understand. But the shocking truth is that much of it is registered in the brain, only to be interpreted later, for better or worse, as memory integrates.

In an issue of Nutrition Health Review (#28) devoted to the subject of prenatal influence, various cases are cited of individuals remembering music that they could only have been exposed to before birth.

Birth memories, which some people say they remember, have been confirmed in extensive research. Dr. Chamberlain devotes a considerable portion of the book to relating such encounters with prebirth memories.

"What we find in birth memories," he writes, "is consistent with what is found in modern research: the newborn brain, nervous system, memory, and physical senses are active and coordinated; a normal range of human emotions is felt and expressed while the infant mind is alert, perceptive, exploring and busy incorporating each new experience."
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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