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Pre- and perinatal psychology

Pre- and perinatal psychology is the study of the psychological implications of the earliest experiences of the individual, before (prenatal) and during (perinatal) childbirth. Although theoretical and therapeutic approaches vary in their treatment of the topic, a common thread is the fundamental importance of pre- and perinatal experiences in the shaping of the personality and future psychological development. This assertion is not widely supported in mainstream contemporary psychology, owing to widespread doubt regarding the extent to which newborn infants are capable of forming memories, the effect of any such memories on their personality, and the possibility of recovering supposedly repressed memories.

Recognition of the relevance of birth experiences has existed since the early days of psychology. While Sigmund Freud touched the idea briefly before rejecting it, his disciple Otto Rank became convinced of the importance of birth trauma in causing anxiety neurosis, authoring the seminal work The Trauma of Birth (1924) and developing a process of psychoanalysis based on birth experiences. Freud disagreed with Rank, causing them to part ways and relegating the study of birth trauma to the fringes of psychology. The topic was taken up again by 1949 Nandor Fodor, who in addition to birth trauma, emphasized the significance of prenatal trauma. Developments in the 1950s included a shift emphasis towards non-traumatic (e.g. Donald Winnicott) and even spiritual (e.g. Lietaert Peerbolte) aspects of pre- and perinatal experience, and brought attention to the relevance of very early gestation and even the event of conception (e.g.Peerbolte), topics that saw later elaboration by Frank Lake, Michael Irving, Graham Farrant, Stanislav Grof and others. The expression at a broad social level of basic perinatal feelings, such as suffering fetus or poisonous placenta, play a fundamental role in the field of psychohistory developed by Lloyd deMause. Pre- and perinatal psychology also plays an important role in primal therapy.

Material emerging from sessions of psychedelic psychotherapy using LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs was the foundation for research into the relevance of pre- and perinatal experiences conducted by Frank Lake , Athanasios Kafkalides and Stanislav Grof. Grof in particular formulated an extensive theoretical framework for the analysis of pre- and perinatal experiences, based on the four constructs he called Basic Perinatal Matrices. Lake and Grof independently developed breathing techniques as an alternative to the use of psychedelic drugs, which was subject to considerable legal difficulty from the 1970s onwards. A related technique called Rebirthing Breathwork was developed by Leonard Orr. Core process psychotherapy trainees relive birth trauma as part of their training.

Public attention was drawn to the importance of prenatal experiences by the 1981 book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child by Thomas R. Verny, who founded the Association for Pre- & Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH). David Chamberlain, who was president of the APPPAH from 1991 to 1999, published a popular book entitled Babies Remember Birth (1988) outlining new experimental research in support of the existence of pre-natal memories. Further evidence was presented by Ludwig Janus in The Enduring Effects of Prenatal Experience (1997). One of the first practical books advocating trauma-free childbirth was Frederick Leboyer's Birth Without Violence (1975).

Selected References

  • O. Rank, The Trauma of Birth, 1924; Dover 1994 reprint: ISBN 048627974X
  • F. Leboyer, Birth Without Violence, 1975; 2nd revision 2002: ISBN 0892819839; also online (below)
  • T. Verny, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, 1981; Dell 1982 reprint: ISBN 0440505658
  • F. Lake, The First Trimester, 1982
  • S. Grof, Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, 1986 ISBN 0873958993
  • D. Chamberlain, Babies Remember Birth, 1988; 3rd edition (The Mind of Your Newborn Baby) 1998: ISBN 155643264X
  • L. Janus, The Enduring Effects of Prenatal Experience: Echoes from the Womb, 1997, ISBN 1568218532
  • M. D. Adzema, Falls From Grace: Spiritual and Philosophical Perspectives of Prenatal and Primal Experience 2004 (online, below)

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04