What Is Perinatal Psychology?

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In about nine months, a fertilized egg grows into an embryo, becomes a fetus, and finally a new baby is ready to take in the world. The physical transformation is amazing, but some psychologists say physical development isn’t the only dramatic process taking place. Prenatal and perinatal psychology is a field that says the time from conception until the end of babyhood is a formative time for lifelong personality traits.

How Does Perinatal Psychology Work?

Some branches of developmental psychology believe that the earliest meaningful experiences that can shape someone’s emotional and social understanding start at birth. Other psychologists may argue that the development of personality and overall relationship to family and emotions carries on for years or decades before the personality is fully formed.

Perinatal psychology says that psychological development starts way earlier, in the womb, or even before conception actually occurs! Practitioners may explain that parents’ diet and mental health conditions or outlook can affect which fertilized egg successfully implants. During pregnancy, the fetal brain development may also be affected by the mother’s stress levels, or even her feelings about having a baby. Perinatal psychology also emphasizes the importance of labor, birth, and the immediate postpartum experience in determining whether a new baby instinctively feels “wanted,” safe, and loved.

Is Perinatal Psychology Proven?

It’s difficult to say for certain how many of the claims of perinatal psychology are true. Scientists often disagree about when a fetus or baby may be understood to feel pain, or how the brain takes in information that can shape future experiences.

We can’t fully understand the experience of an embryo or fetus, because there’s no real way to communicate. Perinatal psychologists may see things like a fetus kicking, sucking a thumb, or making facial expressions in utero as a sign of consciousness. Other psychologists say these actions are basic responses to stimuli or sensations, but the brain isn’t developed enough to be capable of real emotion or thought.

It’s certainly true that the brain continues to develop rapidly well after birth. People generally don’t make lasting long-term memories until late childhood. It’s also widely known that skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding within the “golden” two hours or so after birth is associated with better bonding and breastfeeding. You’re likely to find evidence on either side, claiming the importance of early experience or finding that the first few months of life don’t have a defining impact on development.

Perinatal Psychology Pros and Cons

There’s a tendency in many parts of the Western world to take a highly medical approach to pregnancy and birth. If you have difficulty conceiving, you may face a battery of invasive tests and procedures. During pregnancy, many expectant parents hear a list of rules and restrictions. After birth, it’s entirely possible that you’ll have a postpartum depression screening form to fill out at the hospital, and another at your 6-week follow-up appointment — but no other routine mental health checks.

Perinatal psychology tends to take a much more in-depth look at anxieties you carry into and through pregnancy. Psychologists are more likely to believe your feelings about motherhood affect your and your baby’s physical and emotional health, so you may feel more emotional support than is standard in some other doctors’ offices. A perinatal psychologist may help develop a more detailed plan to overcome fear of giving birth, for example, instead of concentrating primarily on pain relief options.

Perinatal psychology also emphasizes the importance of labor, birth, and the immediate postpartum experience in determining whether a new baby instinctively feels “wanted,” safe, and loved.

One drawback is that believing your mood affects your baby can easily feel like pressure. Prenatal and postpartum anxiety and depression are common experiences. Some parents may feel that perinatal psychology blames them — and their mental health issues — for anything that goes wrong with their baby’s birth or early life. While some studies appear to draw a connection between maternal anxiety and autism, these studies may have confounding factors (other, uncontrolled differences between groups that affect the accuracy of results) or other problems that impair the validity of the findings. The last thing you need when you’re having a tough time is to be told your baby’s problems are your fault, when the evidence isn’t clear that this is true.

There’s always more to learn about pregnancy and how personalities form. Perinatal psychology offers its own perspective on early development, which may be interesting for you to consider as you prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for parenthood.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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