Psychology is sometimes accused of ‘just being common sense’ or of ‘stating the obvious’, and perhaps the assertion that happy parents make happy children is an example of such? However, sometimes the understanding of how, why and when this happens is useful to parents. The building blocks of happiness start in pregnancy and may warrant the interest and attention of both mums- and dads-to-be.
One dynamic factor at work in pregnancy which will affect the future happiness of a baby is their environment - the womb. Realising the importance of their influence in this, many pregnant women try to look after themselves a little better. They may take up yoga, stop eating unpasteurised cheese and give up alcohol - and well done to all who do. But how many pay as much attention to their social and psychological well-being? These aspects of parents’ lives are just as important for their baby, if emotional as well as physical health is valued.
Babies start developing emotional well-being in the womb. Parents can help by acknowledging that their psychological state affects this. For mums, their hormones can cross the placenta and directly affect the baby. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is to be avoided as far as possible as it is not ideal for the baby to have this in large quantities. It is impossible to avoid stress completely, and the ups and downs of everyday life will not be a problem. However, if intense and long-lasting stress is experienced in pregnancy, tell the midwife as soon as possible and get it addressed so Mother and Baby’s best interests are served.
Dads, too, can affect the baby both directly and indirectly. After about 20 weeks’ gestation, the baby’s hearing has developed and they can hear both internally - for example, their mother’s heartbeat - and sounds from the external world, such as their parents’ voices. So, what does your baby hear? If they hear calm, affectionate tones of voice from the external environment, that is better than if they hear shouting and arguing. In addition, if the mum’s nearest and dearest are loving and relaxed she is more likely to experience happy hormones and pass them on to the baby, creating a great start for him or her.
So, if mums and dads stay calm, have fun and enjoy a positive relationship with each other and friends, this will set the baby up for the best start. If parents can already tick this box - and I know many will - some other tips that might help are as follows. Just like you avoid harmful food and alcohol, avoid harmful thinking, feeling and behaviour. Remember, excessive negativity in any of these areas can lead to stress. So be kind to yourself, have realistic expectations of each other, and have fun. Maintain positive social connections and talk any worries over with trusted friends.
Perhaps most importantly of all, connect with your baby. Stroke, talk and - if not too awkward - sing to the bump. Let the baby hear your warm, engaging happy voices. This way, when the baby is born, he or she will prefer the sound of your voices over others. Babies are social beings, born ready to connect with their parents; if you start this during pregnancy, you and your baby will have a head start!