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The Two-Way Umbilical Cord: Bonding with Your Baby Before Birth

This article was written by Shawn A. Tassone MD
posted under Health

pregnant woman

"Each time people ask me when exactly I started dancing, I say, 'In my mother's womb.'" – Isadora Duncan

There is a silent conversation born from the physical fusion between you and your baby during pregnancy—an unspoken communication that deepens as you journey together toward birth. The connection moves both ways: from you to your baby and from your baby to you. The process is sometimes called "entrainment," a term that means a close movement in synchronicity. Entrainment was discovered in 1665 by Dutch scientist Christian Hugans. He found that if he placed numerous pendulum clocks in the same room and started the pendulums at different rates, the clocks would soon synchronize and start moving to a single beat. Other experiments have been done to show that hearts beating near one another "entrain" and start beating at a single rhythm. The dynamic is so universally understood that jazz musicians use the term for the way that distinct and individual musicians will find their beats synchronizing together—creating one pulsing sound.

The synchronization of your heartbeat along with your baby's own heartbeat is just one of the ways in which you and your baby communicate before birth. That communication is an integral part of a spiritually-aware journey during pregnancy.

Visualize the umbilical cord as a telephone wire that connects two receivers—or as a cord between two tin cans in the old fashioned children's game. That communication goes both ways, and encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual connection. Although it is conducted in the language of love rather than words, it is powerful and profound. The domino effect of mother-to-child child chemical changes transmitted through emotion-borne hormones can also physically alter the state of your baby within the womb, after birth, and beyond.

"Prenates can see, hear, feel, remember, taste, and think before birth," says Luminare-Rosen, founder and co-director of The Center for Creative Parenting in Marin and Sonoma counties, California. Evidence for this fact is science-based.

In a 1984 study, French scientists found that babies less than two hours old responded more to their mother's voice than to the voices of five other, unfamiliar women. A separate study from Queen's University, Ontario, Canada in 2003 recorded the fact that sixty term fetuses showed spiked heart rates when their mother read a passage from a book, as compared to the same reading being carried out by the voices of outsiders.

Dr. Thomas R. Verny, a prominent expert on the effects of prenatal and early postnatal environment on personality development, asserts that prenatal stimulation bodes well for healthy fetal development.

"Every minute, there are new brain cells being formed in the unborn child. And as the new brain cells are being formed, pathways or circuits are being formed along the lines that help assist communication for whatever the child the needs. For example, the child will obviously need to breathe, the child will need to move when he is born, the eyelids will need to open and close, so all these organs and all the nervous tissue that supply these organs have to start developing long before birth.

It's the same thing with the brain circuits. The more you stimulate a child's skin, or the more you stimulate its auditory nerves (hearing), the more those pathways will develop and become stronger so that when the child is born, he or she is better prepared for the world."

Venezuelan clinical psychologist Dr. Beatriz Manrique's classic study on the effect of pre- and post-natal stimulation on babies proved the theory that babies who were stimulated with touch and sound in the womb were more vital and active at birth. The newborns in her control group who had been "communicated with" by their mothers before birth had more developed head control and were able to move their heads in the direction of their parent's voices.1

As an OB/GYN, I myself have seen the deep connection and communication of mother and child before birth. For instance, I had a patient who was troubled because she was having recurring dreams that her baby was suffocating; the patient was insistent that something was wrong. I sent her to a woman's center where a non-stress test of the baby showed placental insufficiency—which meant that the child was conserving energy and was indeed "suffocating" through a lack of in utero nutrients. The baby was born, healthy, via C-section because her mother's inner intuition led to her physician's close attention and care.

Another patient told me that she calmed herself and controlled the movements of her unborn by singing it a particular song when she was pregnant. To this day, the three month old will immediately stop crying when her mother sings this particular song, sung to her when she was nestled in the womb.

World culture is full of strange and wonderful stories of babies communicating with their mothers before birth. In the New Testament it is said that St. John the Baptist "leapt for joy" in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when Mary and her own unborn child came to visit them. In the West African epic Sunjata from the ancient kingdom of Mali, the hero Sunjata occasionally escapes from his mother's womb to play around the house in spirit, before birth; and when he is ready to be born, he speaks to his mother aloud and tells her so. And in Kabbalah, the mystery cult of Judaism, it is said that the child in the womb knows everything that God knows. Upon birth, an angel presses his finger to the child's lips to silence him, hence the mysterious indent we all carry over our lips.

In our own time, some biographers tell an apocryphal story that Albert Einstein's superhuman brain capacity was due to the fact that he consciously decided to spend an extra several months in the womb.

The idea that your thoughts, actions, feelings, and surroundings affect your unborn child and that your baby is aware of sensation, sound, emotion, and thought while you are pregnant is not just a fairy tale; it is a theory that is increasing in science-based evidence. If you consider the fact that as recently as fifty years ago, people were drinking and smoking during pregnancy and not considering the effects on the unborn child, you can understand how far we have come—and how far we have yet to go—in understanding the deep mother/child conversation that begins before birth.

Before we begin to work together in helping you decipher the language of your unborn baby, let's consider an important physical dynamic.

Stress, Hormones, and The Fetal Blood Barrier
Mother and child communication also takes place though the language of chemicals upon the brain and body. A recent study reported by Britain's Daily Mail concluded that the stress chemical cortisol in an expectant mother adversely affected her fetus in more concrete ways than previously thought.

Professor Vivette Glover at Imperial College, London and Dr. Pampa Sarkar of Wexham Park Hospital, Berkshire took a blood sample from 267 mothers and a sample from the amniotic fluid surrounding their babies. The report of the experiment, published in the journal Clinical Endocrinology, revealed that, at seventeen weeks or older, the higher the cortisol in the mother's blood, the greater the cortisol in the baby's amniotic fluid.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by stress, and while it helps to compensate when the body is in crisis, high levels can add to depression, fatigue, and impaired growth.

The good news is that stress hormones are something you can control. You can use biofeedback, meditation, and other methods to control the stress chemicals you pass from your bloodstream to your child, just as you avoid smoking, drinking, and unhealthy food and environments.

Your Baby's Secret Language of Senses
First, let's go through the important basic ways in which you can begin close communication with your baby before birth. For an expectant mother and her baby, the five senses are the information superhighway of communication, conveying connection back and forth and forging a bond that will last for a lifetime.

  1. Touch.
    Studies have shown that babies respond to the touch of others outside the womb. Mothers will tell me that a gentle press will often result in a "kick back" as baby lets mother know he or she knows what's going on. Scientists have shown that babies choose the times and methods of their movements—sometimes deciding to stay still for days at a time and sometimes being known to touch, kick, or fight with in utero siblings. Mothers can record the times and circumstances of their baby's movements to trace back the stimulus that provoked them. Some mothers have even reported baby movement while they were listening to music, suggesting that their baby is actually "dancing" in the womb! Mindful massage of the abdomen in a calm and supportive atmosphere can stimulate your baby's movements and engage him or her mentally and physically. This doesn't mean poking and prodding yourself to get a response; it means gently exploring the physical space your baby is living in from the outside using loving touch and positive, not fearful or anxious, intent.

  2. Smell and Taste.
    Smell is the middle child of the senses, but it is the sense that lingers the longest in the brain. Good smells produce physical effects like relaxation, restful sleep, and a sense of well-being. If you are feeling these benefits, so will your baby. Aromatherapy for unborn babies can entail working with a professional aromatherapist, or you can use essential oils yourself for the beneficial effect. Rose oil, lavender, geranium, and sandalwood oils all have soothing and calming effects on the nervous system. Pleasant smells like vanilla and baking bread will communicate warmth and peacefulness to your baby. If you love the smell of Chanel Number 5, take a whiff every now and then or use a scented body crème that gives you a sensory uplift. Whatever you choose that works for you—if you like the smell, your own decreased stress hormone level and increased pleasure hormones will communicate with your baby.

    Taste is closely connected with smell. The baby will begin to taste differences in the amniotic fluid at six to seven weeks. Studies have been done to show that babies swallow more frequently when sweet tastes are released into the amniotic fluid, and that they swallow less frequently when the mother ingests bitter tastes that translate into the womb. This transference happens quickly. It takes just forty-five minutes (or fewer) for a garlic taste to transfer from mother's ingestion to a perceptible flavor in the amniotic fluid.


    Journaling Your Journey Exercise: Tuning in to Baby Gourmet
    Create a peaceful place in your kitchen or dining room: place a candle (unscented) on the table and put on some calming music; you'll be dining á la deux with your baby. Next, arrange three tastes that you like in front of you: one sweet (like ice cream), one sour (like lemonade), and one pungent (like garlic-flavored hummus or salsa on pita chips). Also put a glass of water in front of you to clear your palate. Now sit in front of the food and gently explain to your baby what each dish is and why you like it. Take a taste of the sweet dish and truly savor it. Continue to enjoy it for a few minutes, being aware of the baby within and his or her movements. Imagine you can see your baby's face: is it moving with enjoyment or distaste? Do this with each of the flavors, and note during each experience how your baby moves or shifts within. Make sure that you enjoy the food you are tasting, and pass those feelings of happiness to your baby.

    Family legends are full of stories about mothers eating particular favorites during pregnancy and imparting the love of special food items to their babies. Keep a record of this exercise in your Spiritual Pregnancy Journal under the heading, "Baby Dialogue."


  3. Sight.
    Peace-inducing visual sensations also calm the nervous system and enhance well-being. Mothers who have practiced active visualization of positive outcomes for their pregnancy or who have made "wishing boards" of images that bolster, support, and expand their vision of the child often report benefits like easier births, healthier newborns, more positive feelings of belonging between mother and child, and decreased chance of post partum depression.

    Creative visualizations and "inner sight" work the same way. Hang images in your living space that induce pleasant feelings of security, hope, and health. That could be an image of a guardian angel, a peaceful seaside scene, a picture of a beloved parent or friend. It could also be a drawing you make of your baby and his or her bright future. When you look at these positive images, explain them out aloud to your baby. Which leads us to our next method…


  4. Hearing.
    As we've explained, the sound of the mother's voice is like the Pied Piper to a newborn. When mothers practice reading, chanting, singing, or just talking to their unborn children, a solid bond is forged that will last into childhood and beyond. Similarly, if an unborn hears unpleasant or discordant sounds like arguing or agitated voices, it will respond (in tune with its mother's increased stress cortisol) with a rise in its own amniotic cortisol levels. Make it a daily practice to speak in a gentle and calm voice to your baby. Tell him or her how your day is going. Talk about your plans for the future—your hopes and dreams. Sing, chant, or read poetry or stories to your baby. Studies have found that children who have been read nursery rhymes in the womb react positively to those rhymes after birth, often responding to them like verbal security blankets.

  5. Dreams.
    This may not seem scientific to you, but as a physician I have learned that benefits may come from practices not yet deemed scientific. I have heard many stories from patients and other doctors of mothers getting important information from their unborn babies via dreams. Keep this fifth door open by maintaining a spiritual pregnancy dream journal where you record the images, feelings, and messages you may get from your child via dreams. Make sure that you get as deep and a restful sleep as possible (dreaming—which occurs during the rapid eye movement or REM stage of sleep—is partially induced by melatonin, the hormone that activated by a peaceful, darkened, sleeping space). If you receive information on your baby's state of health (as my patient did in the story I told earlier), don't hesitate to tell your OB/GYN. They have surely heard similar stories, and it always pays to keep this avenue of communication open.

More Advanced Communication Techniques
As well as the communication techniques presented above, there are even more advanced levels of communication open to you and your baby.

  • Biofeedback via Fetal Dopplar Heart Monitor
    Mother/baby "entrainment" via linked heartbeats can be practiced with a Fetal Dopplar Heart Monitor; these can be bought or rented for around $250-300. The monitor allows mothers-to-be to listen to their unborn baby's heart and allow their own heartbeat to synchronize in time.

    Beginning at week five, the fetal heart rate accelerates by 3.3 bpm (beats per minute) per day for the next month.

    The fetal heart begins to beat at approximately the same rate as the mother's (the "entrainment" discussed earlier), which is typically 80 to 85 bpm. Slowly your baby develops his own heart rate:

    • Week 5 starts at 80 and ends at 103 bpm
    • Week 6 starts at 103 and ends at 126 bpm
    • Week 7 starts at 126 and ends at 149 bpm
    • Week 8 starts at 149 and ends at 172 bpm
    • At week 9 the fetal heartbeat tends to beat within a range of 155 to 195 bpm
    • After week 9, the fetal heart rate begins to decrease, and generally falls within the range of 120 to 160 bpm by week 12

    The end of this article includes a meditative exercise that will help you (with or without a heart monitor like the one discussed above) to synchronize your own heart beat in tune with your baby.


  • Meditation Without Machines
    Mothers instinctively know that mindful meditation is a health practice during pregnancy. Whether your practice includes a traditional ritual or is simply sitting peacefully and silently open, meditation helps open the doors of perception between you and your baby and deepens the "entrainment" process.

    Some doulas and spiritually-oriented midwives like to talk about visualizing the umbilical cord as a shining, golden thread between you and your baby. They believe this golden light is healing, energizing, and full of positive energy, and that it passes between you and your baby through spiritual intent.

    I know personally that simple, mindful meditation creates a cornucopia of physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.

Here is our tried and tested method of pre-natal meditation, designed to help strengthen the back and forth communication of you and your baby before birth. You can record this yourself, using a soothing and centered voice. The sound of your voice will be heard and felt by your baby while you are doing the meditation.

Maternal-Fetal Heart Rate Synchronicity Meditation
The purpose of this meditative practice is to bring the mother and fetus into a more synchronous heart beat pattern. While we know the maternal heart rate varies from 60-100 beats per minute and the fetus varies from 120-160 bpm, this exercise is meant to coordinate cycles of regularity that are synchronous with healthy fetal brains and a spiritual connection with our baby. The heart sends an electrical signal through the muscles of every cell that can be detected by external EKG machines for both you and your baby. The beating of your heart is a constant maternal soothing reminder for the baby that you are ever-present and surrounding her with love. This meditation is meant to bring the rhythmic cycling of your heart in line with that of your baby. Relax, enjoy, and connect. You can also do this exercise with a fetal heart monitor (as described above).

Find a comfortable, safe place. It can be warm, cool, dry, or wet (like a warm bath).

Imagine yourself comfortably in the place with the energy of life inside you.

If your baby kicks, acknowledge their presence in your mind.

Thank them for being with you in this quiet time.

As you allow yourself to focus on your breath, notice the air passing over your nose, bringing oxygen to you and your baby. Release the breath and share your baby into the air around you.

AS you continue to focus on your breath—in and out—let your body relax: muscles loose, jaw relaxed, and let your belly fall forward.

Picture yourself standing in front of your meditative self, watching your chest rise and fall with each breath. See within your belly a faint red glow of your baby's heart pumping oxygen that previously inhaled through your breath. See this little heart beat growing brighter red and warming your belly from the inside. Now also see your heart beat beginning to glow with love, as if communicating encouragement and love to your little one. See the baby's heart beat slowly speed up, as if excited by your recognition, and your heart rate slowly rising to match the excitement.

Your standing body sees the rhythms of both hearts moving together as if controlled by an unseen but all-loving force. Watch the wave moving in time with your breath and notice your baby's movements, each little movement a sign that he or she is aware of your communication.

With your heart rates now moving up and down with each respiration and each breath conveying a message of love and affirmation, place your hands on your belly and feel the warmth of your skin. As you do, feel the warmth from your heart move down your arms, into your hands, and out your fingers into the skin of your belly.

1Manrique B. "A Controlled Experiment in Prenatal Enrichment with 684 Families in Caracus, Venezuela: Results to Age Six." Association for Pre-and Perinatal Psychology and Health. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 1998; 12.

Shawn A. Tassone MD
Shawn A. Tassone, MD, and Kathryn M. Landherr, MD, (Austin, TX) are board-certified OBGYNs. In addition to their traditional medical training and practice, they each have completed two-year fellowships in integrative medicine with Andrew Weil, MD, at the...  Read more

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