Photograph by Abe Goodale
Photograph by Abe Goodale
Photograph by Abe Goodale
Photograph by Abe Goodale
Photograph by Abe Goodale
Photograph by Abe Goodale

The Effect of the Pre-natal Environment

This paper will propose the relevance of this early stage of growth with a few clinical case examples to support the theory. Elements of several studied theorists will reinforce the presented concepts.

From conception to the time of birth, the developing fetus is literally within the mother; her womb, her body, emotions, and sensations create an environment for the unborn offspring. Many theorists contend that the environment has an impact on personality development; I expand this to include the pre-natal environment. Fritz Perls does not "suggest that an individual can exist in any sense separate from his or her environment" (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p. 71) and "Donald Winnecot's psychoanalytic thinking rested on the premise that no psyche can be understood as existing in isolation. The infant's developing self thrives only in the playful, loving and above all, mirroring environment of the mother's attention" (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p. 77). The experiences of the mother during pregnancy impact the early experience of the fetus and may well have a lasting effect on the creation of thought forms and subsequent mental, emotional and physical health of the child to be.

A six year old boy came to my office for unaccountable fits of weeping and sadness. The mother would find the boy huddled in a corner, or under the table uncontrollably crying for no apparent reason. When she asked her son what was wrong, he didn't know, but just felt sad. On interviewing them, the boy recalled a dream he had about the family being out in the canoe on a lake. Their dog, whose name was Baby, fell over the side of the boat and was drowning. They called to the dog to 'hang on' and the father tried to save the dog, but failed and the dog perished. The boy teared up telling his dream. We then talked about the mother's pregnancy to find that she had an emotionally difficult time as she miscarried a twin that was in the womb with the client. After losing one of the babies, she was sad, tentative and worried that she would lose the other. Through the duration of her pregnancy she would repeatedly say "hang on baby." The message in the boy's dream (to hang on) was the same as his mother's message to him in the womb. Sewell (1999) reminds us that "we are guided by what we see and hear and feel, by the sensory and sensual interaction with the world that ultimately sustains our very world" (p. 259).

While this is a highly simplified case presentation, it seems clear that the sadness the boy was experiencing may well have been related to the prenatal loss of his twin brother. While we don't know if the fetus had an independent emotional response to the miscarriage, his mother was grieving and fearful and he was surrounded by the field of her reaction. After homeopathic treatment, not only did the weeping spells cease, but the boy reported a change in the dream. Again, the family was in the canoe and 'baby' fell overboard. This time, however, the father was able to rescue to the dog and the family carried on with their outing. By treating the boy with a remedy that addressed the emotional state of the mother during pregnancy the boy was cured. The crying spells have not recurred in the past 16 years.

Skinner believes "we are controlled by the world in which we live" (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p.326) and John B Watson argues that "all learning is dependent upon the external environment, and that all human behavior is conditioned and conditionable" (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p. 317). The external environment in the case of the fetus, is the womb. Since the mother and child are sharing the same food, air, blood and other life giving resources, it makes sense that the fetus is also absorbing the repeated thoughts or habits and energetic patterns of the mother. The pre-birth ambiance may effect later development of defenses, character structure and even physical symptoms.

Horney's model is one in which early experiences profoundly affect us not by producing fixations that cause us to repeat earlier patterns but by conditioning the ways in which we respond to the world. These in turn are influenced by subsequent experiences and eventually evolve into our adult defensive strategies and character structure. Early experience may have a greater impact that later ones because they determine the direction of development, but the character of the adult is the evolved product of all previous interactions between the psychic structure and environment. (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p. 159)
A teenager with psychotic hallucinations of executions, murders and grotesque deaths of family members, felt great relief when he made an association between the nature of his delusions and the history of his pre-natal environment. His mother had terminated a pregnancy shortly before she conceived this young man. The fetus was pronounced dead and was dismembered in order to be removed from the mother's body. The mother was very distraught over the abortion, felt the fetus had not been in distress and was fearful that she would not be able to bear another child. Throughout the pregnancy with her son, she grieved the loss of the previous pregnancy and feared losing this pregnancy. Could it be that the state of sadness that occurred in the womb just a couple of months before the client was conceived held the memory of the brutal abortion and effected the ensuing theme of hallucinations? "For Reich, the body plays a critical role in storing and challenging bioenergy, which is the basis of human existence and experience. Reich viewed the mind and body as a unit" (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p.250).

The energetic atmosphere of the womb was engrained in the boy who suffered from night terrors and hallucinations that mimicked the physical abortion and accompanying emotions that occurred in the womb just before his conception.

If we think of the envelope as the womb, Carl Rogers affirms that:

There is a field of experience unique to each individual; this field contains all that is going on within the envelope of the organism at any given moment which is potentially available to awareness. It includes events, perceptions, and sensation that a person is not aware of but could be if he or she focused on these inputs. It is a private, personal world that may or may not correspond to observed, objective reality. (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p. 399)

While the fetus is developing, he is most susceptible to the system of the mother. But, as a part of the mother, the envelope of the child also includes what is happening in the mother's world: her perceptions, events and sensations. The fetus need not be consciously aware to be influenced. It is not likely that the child only has a field of experience once it is born and is outside the mother, but the impact of the field of experience begins with conception.

One final case example considers the events around conception and intra-uterine life. With in-vitro fertilization, the steps toward conception include hormonal injections, the harvesting and processing of eggs and sperm, their meeting in the petri dish and the eventual implantation of the embryo in the uterus. An in-vitro child had problems with time and spacial sequencing. His mind could not start at the beginning of a story, a memory of the day, a statement, or of spelling a word and proceed in an orderly fashion. He would skip around, go to the end of the story, get ahead of himself, and end up frustrated and not communicating well. The problem appears to mirror the perplexity of his clinically enabled conception. Rather than egg and sperm meeting in the uterus to implant, they left their respective bodies, joined in the laboratory and rejoined later in the uterus. The natural, age old sequential pattern was interrupted. The impact of this interruption due to the technical intervention showed up years later in the boy's inability to sequence the externalization of life's events.

Valle says that the

...ego or individual self is but a reflection of a greater, transpersonal ("beyond the personal") self of oneness. We come from and are grounded in that self. However, we have become estranged from our origins and we need to return to them in order to become fully healthy and whole human beings. (Fadiman & Frager, 2002, p. 454).
I am suggesting that this estrangement begins in the womb and that when we look at the pre-natal environment we might learn more about the etiology of disease as well as personality development. With a variety of prenatal examples, we begin to note the potential relationship and impact of the prenatal environment on personality development. Speeth's reference to 'grokking' closely describes the exchange between mother and fetus:
Grokking is a basic human way of knowing that is immediate, noncognitive, and deeply identified. Grokking is the sort of identification with another in which we temporarily match their inner experience. Upon this base, true empathy can be built. But grokking can be involuntary, when the attention is focused narrowly and steadily because of patterns of counter-transference. (Speeth, 2003, p. 93)
There is not clarity of individuation between the mother and fetus. Just as a child sees herself mirrored in her mother, and cannot distinguish between her behaviors and herself, the fetus may assume the mother's experience is actually her experience. The attention of the fetus is primarily focused in the womb of the mother, identifying with and matching her experience.


Fadiman & Frager. (2002). Personality and Personal Growth. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Sewell L. (1999). Looking for a Worldview. In Sight and Sensibility (p. 241 274). New York : Jeremy Taylor/Putnam.

Speeth, Kathleen Riordan. (2003). On Therapeutic Attention from The Wisdom of Learning. (p. 80-107). Wisdom Publications.


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