Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Preconception
Becoming a parent can radically transform you. But long before you are even pregnant, you can begin thinking about how having a family may change the way you approach your life.
Naturally, you want to give your child as healthy a start as possible. Because you may be pregnant for several weeks before you are fully aware that you have conceived, preconception is the time to start examining the kinds of things your baby will be exposed to during pregnancy. At the same time, you can begin thinking about what having a family means to you so you can start cultivating the qualities in yourself that will help you become the kind of parent you hope to be. Knowing that you want to create a certain kind of family life will allow you to consider what changes you need to make to bring your baby into a sensitive, responsive, and loving environment.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
Contrary to Freud's notion that every baby is a kind of tabula rasa or blank slate, recent research shows that infants have awareness and consciousness while in the womb. Studies have shown that babies respond to music in the womb and react to loud noises and bright light. They have even been observed to smile and to cry in utero. In one experiment by Italian researcher Allesandra Piontelli in 1992, a pair of twins, observed with ultrasound throughout their gestation, played affectionately with each other, touching each other cheek to cheek on either side of the membrane that separated them. Later, as toddlers, their favorite game was sitting, separated by a curtain, and rubbing their cheeks together.
If our memory begins in the womb, then it stands to reason that each of us might remember our own birth on an unconscious level. Indeed, children under three have been able to give detailed accounts of their experiences in utero and during their birth complete with facts they could not have otherwise known. Under hypnosis, even adults have produced vivid recollections of their birth experiences.
Elaine and Thomas
On a long car trip, Eric, then three years old, suddenly asked us from the back seat, "Do you remember the day I was born?"
"Yes, do you?" we asked.
Eric responded, "Yes. It was dark and I was up real high, and I couldn't get through the door. I was scared, so finally I jumped and got through the door and then I was OK. Were you happy then?"
"Yes, we were very happy," we both responded, in shocked disbelief.
The interesting thing is, he remained high in my pelvis throughout twenty hours of labor, until very suddenly his position changed and he was born.
Linda Mathison, "Birth Memories: Does Your Child Remember?" Mothering, Fall 1981.
The Womb: Baby's First Room
The womb, then, is the baby's first environment, one in which he appears to have consciousness and feelings. As Leni Schwartz writes in Bonding Before Birth, "The moment of conception, the process of growing in our mother's womb, reacting to her hormones, digestion, smells, tastes, the air she breathes, her movements and emotions for nine formative months, and experiencing birth, are all part of our unconscious, affective memories."
Just as you want to bring your child into a safe, healthy, supportive home, you want to make sure your child's first environment is a nurturing place. Thomas Verny asserts in The Secret Life of the Unborn Child that the womb sets the stage for the child's future development: "If it is a warm, loving environment, the child is likely to expect the outside world to be the same.... If that environment has been hostile, the child will anticipate that his new world will be equally uninviting."
Such research suggests that we carry memories of the womb with us memories that can influence the way in which we develop. It also suggests that you can create a nurturing place in the womb through your positive feelings about your baby. Your emotions of love and protectiveness towards your infant will be communicated to the baby in utero. Conversely, feelings of fear, anxiety, and ambiguity can affect the baby. Loving, nurturing thoughts can go a long way towards counteracting the effect on the baby of stresses that the mother can't control. Even if you are under extreme external stress, have financial problems or illness in the family, or feel ambivalent about the baby, you can protect your baby by keeping your feelings about him positive and loving. You can't control the external factors that are affecting you, but you can control
whether or not they affect your baby.
Equally important are your partner's feelings. One study indicates that women involved in stormy relationships run a 237 percent greater risk of bearing a psychologically or physically damaged child. A pregnant woman needs emotional support, and the baby's father is often the most important source of that support.
Food: Fuel for a New Life
Most of us readily recognize that a healthy diet is critically important during pregnancy. But it is also an excellent idea to start eliminating toxins from your diet and begin developing good eating habits while you are trying to conceive. Eat a wide variety of foods found in as natural a state as possible. Whenever they are available, choose unprocessed, pesticide-free, organic foods. Try to eat food that is locally grown and in season check out your local farmers' market. Avoid additives and preservatives.
Vegetarian, vegan, and macrobiotic diets are all safe to follow during preconception and pregnancy as long as you are careful about following a balanced diet. You can get ample protein, for instance, from concentrated protein sources like tofu, tempeh, seitan, and nuts. Your calcium requirement can come from fresh greens sprinkled with sesame seeds and from sea vegetables, which are high in iron as well as calcium. Vegetarian diets have the added bonus of including lots of folic acid, which is necessary in the early development of the fetus. And, don't forget about Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) which make up the membrane of every cell in the body as well as providing raw material for energy production. Make sure to get enough unrefined oils and fats. Good sources include sesame oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soy oil, flaxseed oil, organic butter, coconut oil, and various nut butters.
Although many women take prenatal vitamins as a precaution when they are pregnant or trying to conceive, current guidelines from the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., note that they are not absolutely necessary. A well-balanced diet is the best way to get vitamins and minerals, as the body absorbs and assimilates them better through food sources, with little risk of overdose. In fact, vitamin supplementation can have adverse effects. For example, too much iron can inhibit the absorption of zinc, and high doses of vitamin A may interfere with fetal development. If you do decide to take a supplement, be sure you do not take more than the recommended dosage and be especially sure that you do not think of the supplements as a cure-all. No amount of supplementation can make up for a poor diet.
Besides making sure to include healthy foods in your diet, you should definitely give up tobacco and alcohol, and limit or avoid caffeine during pregnancy and preconception. After all, you may be pregnant before you realize it and the first trimester is a critical time in the baby's development. Smoking greatly increases the risk of spontaneous abortion and fetal death
as well as complications during labor. Babies whose mothers smoked during pregnancy may be born at a lower birthweight and have continuing health problems into childhood. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the name given to a host of ills in children, including mental retardation and growth deficiencies, that are a direct result of their mothers' alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Caffeine has been shown to increase the incidence of birth defects among laboratory rats.
If a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine with dinner is part of your daily routine, eliminating these things may be hard for you. Try some healthy substitutes: a mug of herbal tea (preferably red raspberry and nettles see "Herbs That Help," page 8) in the morning; sparkling mineral water with lime at night. Instead of putting your feet up with a cigarette after dinner, try taking a walk around the neighborhood. Exercise has the added advantage of producing natural endorphins, the same pleasure transmitters that are factors in addiction to cigarettes and caffeine.
A few months ago my thirteen-year-old daughter asked if I had ever smoked. I admitted that I did until I got pregnant, at which point I gave it up for good. She looked at me admiringly and said, "You did that for me?" There is a beauty in knowing you're doing the best for your child, and in effect saying, "I respect you and love you, and I want to take care of you from the day you're conceived."
Start getting in the habit of drinking lots of water now you'll need it when you're pregnant and nursing. Spring water and well water are best. If your tap water comes from municipal water system, you can have the water checked for things like lead, nitrates, and trihalomethanes, which have been linked with a higher miscarriage rate. If these are present, you can always use a water filter or buy bottled water instead.
HEALTHY EATING FOR TWO
Following are some suggestions for a balanced preconception and pregnancy diet for different food lifestyles. Key advice is to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, making sure you include a variety of foods from the groups listed below:
Calcium. Found in dairy products, tofu processed with calcium, soy milk, soybeans, sea vegetables, sesame seeds (tahini), almonds, dark leafy greens, salmon, mackerel, sardines, beans, lentils, blackstrap molasses, and dried fruit.
Protein. Chicken, fish, red meat, dairy products, eggs, tofu, tempeh, seitan, beans, legumes, nuts, and nut butters.
Grain products (supply carbohydrates for energy as well as a good source of B-complex vitamins, vitamins E and K, and zinc). Whole grain breads, cereals, pastas, cracked wheat, wheat germ, rice, millet, bulgur, quinoa, kasha, and amaranth.
Iron (iron requirements double in pregnancy, and may be difficult to get from diet alone). Red meat, liver, tofu, brewer's yeast, blackstrap molasses, dried fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, dark leafy greens, seeds, nuts, and eggs.
Folic acid (critical in early development of the fetus). Liver, whole grains, legumes, sunflower seeds, beans, dark leafy greens, oranges, broccoli, and brewer's yeast.
Vitamin B6 (supplementation may aid in reducing morning sickness). Brewer's yeast, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, legumes, walnuts, whole grains, fruits, dark leafy greens, meat, fish, and chicken.
Vitamin C. Oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupe, papayas, guava, strawberries, lemons, limes, green or red peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, parsley, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, turnips, watercress, and rose hips.
Vitamin A, E, and K. Dark leafy greens, orange fruits and vegetables (such as squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, peaches, and cantaloupe), and whole grains.
Zinc. Fresh oysters, pumpkin seeds, ginger root, nuts, whole grains, and lima beans.
Fats. Unrefined vegetable oils (olive, sesame, sunflower, soy, safflower, etc.), organic butter, mayonnaise, avocado, nuts, and nut butters.
HERBS THAT HELP
There are several herbs that are rich in vitamins and minerals and have properties that are beneficial during conception, pregnancy, and childbirth. (For more on using herbs, see Chapter 12.) The following herbs can be eaten as vegetables or steeped alone or in combination as a nourishing tea:
Red raspberry. Rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins B, C, and E. Increases fertility, tones the uterus, eases morning sickness, and aids in milk production.
Nettles. Rich in iron, calcium, and protein. Increases fertility, reduces leg cramps and childbirth pain, helps prevent hemorrhage after birth, reduces hemorrhoids, and aids in milk production.
Alfalfa. Loaded with vitamins A, D, E, and K, digestive enzymes, and trace minerals. Reduces risk of postpartum hemorrhage.
Dandelion. Provides vitamin A and C, iron, calcium, potassium, and many trace elements. Acts as a diuretic to reduce water retention during pregnancy.
A Hazard-Free Environment
At the same time that you are nourishing your body to prepare for your baby, you will want to make sure that your external environment is also safe for a new life. There are many potential environmental contaminants, and while you do not want to be afraid of every little thing, neither should you hesitate to ask questions. If something concerns you, look into it through the resources in your community. Ask pregnant friends. Ask birth practitioners. The main thing is to be aware of what can harm the baby you are planning to conceive and to do all you can to reduce potential hazards.
* Electromagnetic fields (EMFs), emanating from power lines and electrical appliances, have been linked with reproductive problems as well as cancer. Although the research is inconclusive, it is probably best to limit your exposure to these potential hazards.
* Almost all major brands of computers now come equipped with low-emission terminals. To check yours, ask the manufacturer if it is TCO or MPR2 compliant. Of greater concern are EMFs emanating from office equipment such as copiers or printers. Sit at least four feet away from the back or sides of these machines, where the EMFs are strongest (even if a wall separates you from the machine). Microwave ovens are also a concern not because of the microwaves themselves, but again, for the EMFs emanating from the machines' backs and sides. Stand back or leave the room when a microwave is in use. Electric blankets, because of their proximity to your body, should be avoided. Try using a hot water bottle instead of a heating pad. If you are concerned about a power line located near your house, you can ask your utility company to measure the magnetic field for you.
* X rays are another cause of concern. Robert Brent, MD, a distinguished professor of pediatrics, radiology, and pathology at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, recommends that both a mother-to-be and her partner wait three months after being exposed to radiation before trying to conceive. If you are counseled to get an X ray while you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, always ask, "How much will it help? Is it indispensable? And how much exposure will there be?"
* The fumes from paints, some cleaning supplies, glues, and other noxious products can harm a baby in utero. As with substances you ingest because you may be pregnant without knowing it avoid exposure to such potentially toxic substances when you are trying to conceive.
* There is not much information on how safe food additives are during conception and pregnancy, because very few of them have ever been tested. Therefore, when you are trying to conceive, try to avoid foods that are heavily fortified with additives such as artificial sweeteners and replacements for oil and butter.
* Never take over-the-counter medications without first asking your doctor when you are pregnant or trying to conceive. Even if he or she gives you the go-ahead, it is wise to do all you can to solve minor complaints without the use of medication. Again, not much is known about some over-the-counter medications. Doris Haire, president of the American Foundation for Maternal and Child Health, cautions: "If you have a headache, try a cold cloth first; try anything other than a chemical product."
Use common sense. When you are in doubt about any choices you may make about food, medications, or potential environmental hazards while you are trying to conceive or when you are pregnant, always err on the side of caution.
How to Establish a Baby-Friendly Lifestyle
As hard as we may work at it, none of us can ever say that we have created around us the environment we consider perfectly safe, stress free, and supportive of the lifestyle we seek. Many factors are out of our control. But many are not. When you are thinking about having a baby is a good time to take stock of your surroundings, your support network, and your lifestyle, and to change the things you can to ensure that you will provide the best environment you can for your new family. Following are some concepts that can help you toward this end.
REDUCE STRESS IN YOUR LIFE
An extremely high-stress lifestyle is not conducive to conceiving or carrying a baby to term, or to getting a baby off to a good start. A study of forty-four women who were at risk of premature labor showed that they all had either a high level of stress in their lives, a high level of fear or anxiety about the birth, or many unrealistic demands placed on them with little support. Under hypnosis, many of the women revealed an unconscious perception that having a baby prematurely would make their lives easier because it would mean the hospital nurses would care for the baby. Through the use of further hypnosis, they were able to form intimate bonds with their babies, and in most cases, the premature contractions stopped without drug therapy.
We all have a lot of stresses in our lives. Who can avoid it? But if having a baby is your main priority, start thinking now about rearranging your other priorities around this one. Consider reducing your workload if this is an option for you or cutting back on the obligations that may have accumulated outside your work. Start taking time out of your day to take care of yourself. This self-care will become even more important when you are pregnant and after your baby is born.
INCREASE YOUR SOCIAL SUPPORT NETWORK
Research shows that women birth best when they feel safe and cared for. Now, before you need to make all the decisions involved in having a child, you can begin to look at your support network and think about ways to augment it. Start to educate yourself about the resources that are available in your community for pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing. Is it important to you to live near relatives once you start a family? Or do you have close friends nearby who are like family? Maybe you want to make sure you are in a community where alternative medical practitioners are readily available. Or perhaps you want to be near a university hospital, big city, church group or spiritual community once you have children. In preparation for having a family, you might want to consider moving to a more family-supportive environment, but many new families find that there are abundant resources nearby, once they begin really looking for them.
If you do not have much flexibility in your choices, you can still create your own support network, by accessing resources over the phone or the Internet. The main thing is to begin to look at your options now, while you have time to think about your choices, and make any changes that are important to you.
EXPLORE YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF PARENTING WITH YOUR PARTNER
It would be a shock to discover after your baby is born that you and your partner have radically different ideas about how to raise a child. However, it is not uncommon for couples to make just that discovery. After all, if we go into parenting unconsciously without much thought we tend to do things the way our parents did them. If you and your partner had parents who raised you with very different sets of values and different styles of discipline, for example, it stands to reason that you will most likely find yourselves at odds when you try to parent your own child.
If we make conscious choices, we can choose the best of our parents' practices and try not to repeat their mistakes. Partners can do a great deal to help each other acknowledge what forces are at work in determining how they want to parent. As you prepare to conceive, now is the time to find out where you share common ground and to begin trying to build a consensus where you differ. To start, each of you should take a careful look at and talk about the role models you have had for intimacy, caretaking, and conflict resolution. Your goal is to build common values, but also to respect each other's differences of opinion.
BEGIN THINKING ABOUT BIRTH
Again, this is an area to discuss with your partner: You may have very different ideas about how and where you want the birth to take place. You will also want to examine your own attitudes and beliefs regarding birth. If you find that you are harboring fears and anxieties about birth, go through some exercises, such as writing down the fears you have been afraid to think about, and talking with supportive friends and relatives as well as with your partner. Often the simple expression of a fear helps you to let go of it. Most importantly, start to become comfortable with the notion that birth is normal. It is not a medical event, and it can be safe in almost any setting, as long as you have had good prenatal care and your birth attendant is experienced and has access to emergency equipment. Wherever you feel safe and cared for is the best place for you to give birth. (See Chapter 2.)
TAKE CARE OF YOUR SOUL
Now is the time to start thinking about babying yourself a little. It is a well-known psychological principle that men and women who have felt nurtured in their lives make the most nurturing parents. Conversely, those who do not experience nurture have difficulty nurturing others. You will be a better parent if you are loving and gentle toward yourself. Begin to notice the things that make you feel good taking a bath, going for a long walk, or talking with a friend and start to develop simple self-care routines. Laugh, dance, and sing. Most of all, recognize that you are a very important person, and learn to be easy on yourself.
Copyright © 2000 by the Philip Lief Group, Inc. and Mothering Magazine, Inc.