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Womb to World 2018 Conference Review

Birthlight Womb to World conferences are re-sourcing encounters around specific themes illuminated by recent research.

We get inspired by the speakers, stimulated by questions and conversations, encouraged to offer new practices in our classes. There is a buzz that’s hard to describe but the glow on faces in the photos shows we are having a good time too. I was happy to hear from our speakers that they enjoyed the day, besides finding it interesting. Warm thanks to them for giving their time generously to share their knowledge, as most of our speakers come freely. The long preparation for each event is a labor of love that involves many people for months in the Birthlight team. Then it happens!  Thanks to all who could come, particularly our Chinese and Japanese friends.

And then? We do our best to extend the benefits of the day, both for those who attended it and those who could not come. Our conference website stays live as a font of research articles we can refer to if needed, details about speakers we can look up, some of the presentations kindly gifted by speakers, reviews, reports and testimonies, ideas and experiments. Check past Womb to World conferences for inspiration when you have a moment online…

Each of us takes different bits of information and knowledge from conferences. As an organiser, I start with an idea and read a lot around it, always with you, Birthlight members, in mind: How does the theme relate to the embodied practices we teach in our classes, on land and in water? Why is it relevant now? How can we translate new research into new or renewed practices? There is a magic, something unquantifiable, in the synergy that is produced among speakers on the day and the interaction with our interdisciplinary audience. It’s always more than what’s announced in the outline and programme and it’s what makes it worth attending. Here are three points I picked up that sprang out louder than in the presentation abstracts and invite feedback from all Birthlight teachers and members worldwide in relation to practices we teach:

1. Direct voice communication with babies before and after birth is a priority in today’s world, using live sound as much as possible to counteract the increasing use of electronic devices that flatten the ‘multi-modality’ babies need to grow their brains.

Professor Grühn was emphatic and passionate, based on the changes he witnessed in his life of research, teaching and experimenting with early musicality. There were several questions about the use of recorded music and lullabies in research projects.

Jennie Muskett’s beautiful music had a measured positive effect on pregnant women affected by prenatal depression in the Imperial College study but someone pointed out that it could alienate some depressed mums to be. We do well at Birthlight with Baby Songs in Baby Yoga classes and Baby Swimming classes but how can we invite pregnant women and couples to talk and sing to bumps-babies?

A few ideas:

  • Start with vowel sounds that help extend the out breath. Remember the trick to bypass excuses or refusals to make sounds: ‘are you an A or an O?’ everyone has a physiological preference and in labour sounds are more towards A or O, merging into WOW and AOWU during strong labour
  • The “AAAh of delight’, when we express surprise and pleasure. The intonation varies in different languages but it’s a lead to “motherese” that Erika Parlato researches across cultures and showed us in her slides. The Birthlight “AAAh of delight” works on the three diaphragms and engages the vagus nerve in a stream of emotional effects including the production of heart oxytocin. Fancy how a little practice like this can be so powerful! And it can be amplified in the water too…
  • Lullabies in simple sequences of yoga-based moves for pregnant women, or polyphonic singing at couples’ workshops. Ingrid Lewis gave as a taste of the Bayaka art of balanced interactive involvement with sound that extends to other aspects of social life. The vowels and the rhythms are easy to grasp and stay in our bodies. Make use of the conference recordings or visit our special ‘song and dance’ page on the Birthlight website. For classic lullabies that can be sung in several parts, try ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ that has been exported to most countries, in 2, 3 or 4 parts. Women in the Pacific region mime-dance songs and their improvisation of Twinkle in our first New Zealand course for maternity professionals with Wendy Gadsden was an inspiration.

  • Expressing our respect and acceptance of pregnant women and new mothers who do not want to join in with sound practices in classes. In some cultures, singing to your baby (or to your lover) is a very private thing. Amazonian women sing to their bumps as they do to their hunting husbands far away from the intimate space of their forest gardens, with the intent to protect and nurture their loved ones. They improvise and sing their emotions, with sounds very different from public singing, even shared lullabies. It’s fine to talk to babies inside about our woes, because as Marie-Claire Busnel was first to show, they feel our thoughts and emotions acutely even though we do not understand yet how this happens. We could not invite speakers from America due to financial constraints but there is a New York project that moved me a lot, showing the short and long term benefits of encouraging pregnant women in challenging life circumstances to create their own baby songs: links are on the conference website, one is  with teenage mothers .  

2. Sound-movement-rhythm together underpin human communication.

Our keynote speaker, Colwyn Trevarthen, presents the world with astounding research that makes us “see” newborns’ sophisticated perception of rhythms in video-clips and matching graphs from audio-recordings. This research goes beyond the Brazelton states and cues that we use in our land and water classes. It’s an inspiration to help parents ‘find the sync’ with their babies both within states and in transitions between states (particularly from ‘fussy’ to ‘alert’ or sleep). It was striking that all speakers mentioned movement in some way in association with sound and early language acquisition and this reinforced an idea about the central part played by movement in early intelligence as the theme of our next conference.

How can we help pregnant couples and new parents to be more aware of rhythms and how their babies respond to different rhythms?

  • During pregnancy, we can encourage conscious use of the breath/voiced breath by both mums to be and dads to be with attention to foetal responses (ideally with couples in close body contact, either back to back or with the pregnant woman sitting in front of the father-to-be or birth partner. Each labour has its own rhythms in the succession of phases and the more women are prepared to follow these rhythms that are both theirs and their babies’, even relatively long labours can be tolerable. Hence the importance of rehearsing our Birthlight “labour circuits” that prepare women to ‘stay in their rhythm’ as much as possible in first, second and even third stages. Dancing clips for labour on the internet are seductive but learning to follow one’s inner body-wisdom to change positions and rhythms is more useful for being well prepared
  • As parent/baby teachers, how attentive are we to ‘attunement’? besides using songs in our classes, how about rhythms?  Do we use enough contrasts to prompt babies’ synaesthetic approval or rejection? Refining the parent-baby dialogue with simple, effective practices parents may not have thought of, both on land and in water, is our Birthlight mission. Some newborns love rough-tough handling and others need sweet containment, and needs can change overnight and change again. We need to convey better our unique palette of practices that work well for parents AND babies together. When new mums get ‘attuned’ in flow movements with their babies, depression is likely to lift, at least a little, and week by week change is noticeable. The positive impact of our teaching circles is also important for collective rhythms. Without going into synchronized ‘eurhythmy’ with every participant moving to beat (there are schools offering this), a spontaneous syncing occurs in the circle
  • Self-study (a principle of yoga (swadhaya) comes first. The more we train our attention and awareness, the better we will be able to transmit ways of parent/baby attunement in our classes. A little mindfulness of our own body and breath rhythms can go a long way.

3. How do we digest and use the overwhelming research presented at Womb to World conferences?

Here are a few tips that can help us communicating important research findings to parents. It’s good to remember that most health practitioners, even medical doctors, do not know these findings because they are not part of their curricula or because they are too busy to keep up with new research. This is why we need to have reference to research articles (like those on our conference website) at our finger tips to provide evidence supporting what we say and teach.

Facts that interest all parents to be and new parents. Can fetuses really hear? How/when does hearing develop? Are recorded heart-beat sounds helpful for calming babies?  We know that most babies inside do not like techno music but then what’s best for them? Do babies remember what they hear In the womb? etc.  Can you answer all these questions? Would it be useful to create a handout as a teachers’ resource?

Our conference website includes some general articles. Start with something like  When can a fetus hear?  before looking at an article with Anatomy & Physiology like Graven and Browne (Newborn & Infant Nursing Review 2008:187-193) to find out about the auditory system in the fetus and infant 'Auditory Development in the fetus and infant'. Our wonderful speaker Emily Hills sent a link to a new article on the benefits of therapeutic sound in Newborn Intensive Care Units (NICU) that offers useful general references on music from the very beginnings from a neuro-science perspective and is easy to read 'Music From the Very Beginning - A Neuroscience-Based Framework for Music as Therapy for Preterm Infants and Their Parents'

Use research evidence if possible to reinforce the main messages from our conference speakers. For example: babies prefer human voices over recordings and they prefer their mothers’ voices above all others. The popular image about foetal hearing using headphones can be substituted with a mum or dad speaking/chanting.

The Baby Centre encourages fathers to sing to their babies as they grow in the womb

Marie-Claire Busnel’s book (the title will translate as something like ‘Dawn of the Senses’ will be a great resource showing the astounding historical realisation that foetuses are refined communicators long before they are born.  How could we, Westerners with the dominant world knowledge, until recently treat the newborn as ‘tabula rasa’, with zero sensations and feelings? The Primal Continuum (that our speakers Kaili Jackson and Eino Partanen showed to be key to language learning) is now a widely accepted concept. We at Birthlight have been among the first practitioners to implement it in action. For Amazonian rainforest people, it’s part of life even if babies now hear a lot of salsa rhythms from their dads’ mobile phones.

Françoise Freedman

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