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Review of the Birthlight international conference: ‘Light on Parenting’

Light on Parenting – Photo Journal Brett Housego (pdf)

Review – Rosanna Kalliabetsos (Birthlight Tutor, Founder and Coordinator of  InJoy!).

I have spent the past few days assimilating the information and wisdom that was presented by the most inspiring team of speakers, at the ‘Light on Parenting’ Conference organised by Birthlight this weekend in collaboration with Magdalena Jenkins. This was a 2 day event held at The Institute of Child Health in London.

The essence of the whole conference was summed up by speaker Dr Menis Yousry when he quoted Gandhi’s words ‘my life is my message’.
Why? because each speaker presented different aspects of the same findings.  In order to create a world with healthy global relations and in which violence is a thing of the past, we must absolutely first of all the emotional (as well as physical) needs of pregnant women and their children. Each of us who embark on the journey of parenting or whose work involves working with pregnant women/families are now faced with the challenge of ‘being the change we want to see’. Violence, aggression, communicative and behavioural difficulties on any level are all rooted in a combination of factors related to basic emotional and physical needs not being adequately met. We do have to include emotional needs in these ‘basics’, as without tending to these needs the whole cycle is repeated.   Foundations are laid down in pregnancy and birth, though there are key stages of babyhood, childhood and teen years that either reinforce the message that the world is not safe, or help to create trust.

This is not just a ‘desirable’ to work towards, but an absolute prerequisite for the survival of our species. Breakthroughs in neuroscience, biochemistry, pre and neonatal psychology and medical research all point towards the same conclusions: this is no longer an issue of nature versus nurture but a situation where nature is also shaped by nurture, on a molecular level, from pre conception onwards!

The issues that arise for us as parents when we are faced with the behaviour of our children, from newborn onwards, are the same issues that our parents faced with us. The key to meeting the emotional needs of our children is to recognise areas where our own emotional needs were not met. We can then start to meet them through becoming more ‘present’ in all of our relationships, with an intention to bring healing, rather than repeat past programming.

The conference was kicked off by Robin Grille, Psychologist and Psychotherapist and author of ‘Parenting for a Peaceful World’ and ‘Heart to Heart Parenting’. Through an exploration of recent revolutionary discoveries in early childhood development and the human brain, and of the history of childhood, Robin looked at vital clues about the roots of human violence and social disharmony. Robin concluded that the key to creating a more peaceful and harmonious world is to safeguard our children’s emotional development through a radical shift in how we choose to parent, and healing our own emotional hurts, which were laid down before we were able to rationalise or understand them.

He and several other speakers referred to Alice Miller’s saying (in her book The Roots of Violence) that within two generations of tending to the emotional needs of pregnant women and new families it would be possible to close prisons and some hospital wards. If we really want to reduce the drain on our NHS, then we need to invest in the primal period as this is where long term health and behavioural issues are seeded.

Recent developments in neuroplasticity (how the brain responds to environmental stimuli and develops accordingly) point to the awareness of an ‘empathy’ part of the brain which is triggered and developed through nurturing and tending behaviour, both during pregnancy and after birth. When this part of the brain is not activated significantly, a tendency towards aggression is present. Researchers were able to predict with accuracy tendencies toward violence in young adulthood according to 2 factors:

  1. Whether the birth experience was traumatic- instrumental delivery/separation at birth and no ‘repair’ work was done
  2. Whether the baby experienced long term rejection from the mother and a secure attachment was never formed.

Vivette Glover, Professor of Perinatal Psychobiology at Imperial College London, presented the latest findings of the Fetal and Neonatal Stress research Group. She discussed statistically significant research that showed a correlation between maternal prenatal stress or anxiety  and an increase in the probability for a range of adverse neuro-developmental outcomes for the child, including ADHD, conduct disorder and cognitive impairment. It seems that the baby in utero, through bio feedback from the maternal environment of the mother (the womb), prepares for the world he or she will be born into. Different parts of the brain are developed according to the type of stimulus the prenate receives over sustained periods of time (not short bouts of ‘stress’ but long term chronic stress factors). More information can be found on Vivette’s website www.beginbeforebirth.org.

David Hass (Prenatal and Birth Therapist, of ‘First Impressions’) went on to offer a clear understanding of how babies and children show us the parenting they need.  What is required of us as parents and carers is to slow down, watch, listen and create a safe space for babies and children to thrive. Naomi Stadlen ( La Leche League leader and author of ‘What mothers do: especially when it looks like nothing’ and ‘How mothers love and how relationships are born’) presented wonderful accounts of what emotions characterise the early months from the mothers’ perspective, drawn from her two London discussion groups for mothers.  Naomi talked of the ‘special time’ referred to by new mothers, of the first 3 months, when babies are really tiny. Mothers often feel a sense of loss once this period is over. The perception many mothers have of being in some kind of ‘protective’ bubble during this time, reinforces the importance of both mother and baby being nurtured at this time.

Menis Yousry, Family and Systemic Psychologist and Psychotherapist, has worked with tens of thousands of people worldwide and is creator of the ‘Essence Process’ and author of ‘Discover Your Hidden Memory and Find the Real You’. His inspiring talk about how parents become influential, rather than influencing, was centred on the idea that our children are extensions of our own consciousness, as we are the extension of our parents’ consciousness. Though we can hardly remember our lives in the womb or as babies and young children, the memories are there and shape who we become, in ways beyond our comprehension. As children our brains are not developed enough to make sense of our experiences, so these become unresolved, unconscious memories. When we become parents, our children bring up these issues for us, and so we have the potential to heal them through our children, or block the healing and do what was done to us. Through seeing our children as mirrors and being willing to do the healing, we can be led to the experience of harmony, compassion and acceptance of ourselves and others. This conscious awareness in our everyday life becomes a true statement of what we want our children to be.

Naomi Aldort, author of ‘Raising our children, Raising ourselves’ further developed this point and explored the challenging emotions we all face as parents in the context of how we can free ourselves from our own emotional reactions. so that we can better understand the needs of our little ones and respond with compassion rather than react from our own hurt. How to respond in authentic ways that are truly kind to both parent and child when faced with issues such as temper tantrums, baby/child tears and needs were discussed, so that self esteem, inner peace and joy are built upon.

The Birthlight trio of Françoise Freedman, Ingrid Lewis and Sally Lomas all delighted us with a photo presentation of experiences in the Congo and the Amazon as well as in Birthlight yoga classes. They highlighted how effective Birthlight yoga is as a medium for providing the emotional, physical and social support needed by new mothers, fathers and babies- and how indigenous wisdom has been the foundation of Birthlight principles that underpin all the various classes and trainings on offer.  Body-based practices developed through innovative cultural fusion help to awaken and heal cellular memory, release fear and tension and connect to the innate intelligence and wisdom that are within each of us.

On the theme of cultural fusion Sally spoke of her experiences taking the Birthlight teachings to many other countries including Russia, Taiwan and Australia. Our hopes and dreams during pregnancy and for our children are the same. Babies desire to communicate and belong is overwhelming and if nurtured forms a lifelong bond.

We watched wonderful video footage from the Bayaka (aka Pygmies) forest people in the Congo and learned of the special time that mother, father and baby are tended by the tribe after the birth, for several weeks: food is brought and each of them is massaged to support the connection of the family and entry into family life. Birth is strictly ‘women’s magic’.  Fathers only see their babies and partners once they come back from the forest where women go to give birth, supported by the elder women of the tribe. Ingrid took her five year old daughter Ineya with her while doing UNICEF work and little Ineya received her first initiation just a week before the conference.

This was just day 1!!

Day 2 commenced with Julie Gerland.  Julie works at the international level as the Representative of the World Organisation for Prenatal Education Associations, OMAEP, a Non Governmental Organisation in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. She currently heads the project entitled ‘9 Months to Save the World: Mother Cradle of Humanity – Key to Sustainable Development’, which will bring the “prenatal solution” to the Rio 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development next month. Julie will be presenting the findings of over 30 yrs of science, and calling on all levels of society to support future parents to offer optimal conditions for sustainable, secure and prosperous human development. We need to ‘imagine’ (as per John Lennon) this shift in a global focus.

This was followed by a presentation from Mavis Kirkham, author of ‘The Midwife-Mother Relationship’ and Emeritus Professor of Midwifery at Sheffield Hallam University. Her talk was about ‘Birthing in Relationship’: how birth is all about relationships and how important it is to build a network of relationships that are supportive both to mother and baby. The importance of helping women to birth in ways that help them to feel strong and safe was highlighted, along with the job satisfaction that can come to midwives through a focus on ‘mothering the mother’ so she can mother her baby. It is as important to help women to feel confident about giving birth as it is for babies to feel safe and secure. The strain on midwives is detrimental in that by shifting their task to the management of medical equipment, data and endless note writing, the capacity simply isn’t there for them to offer the emotional support necessary for’normalising’ birth. Emotional support isn’t currently available for midwives for  supporting the mothers.

Dr Margot Sunderland, author of ‘What Every Parent Needs To Know’, gave us the science behind parenting by exploring the brain’s pro-social systems which are activated and developed through positive adult-child interactions. These systems are in place to help the child to thrive and to manage stress and all emotions efficiently, inhibiting the primitive impulses of fight or flight. The role of dopamine was discussed at length. Dopamine helps little ones to ride on the crest of their joyful experiences when parents also join in with their children’s natural excitement and enjoyment, rather than ignoring these cues or imposing their own agenda on what they feel a child should enjoy. The concept of ‘play and stay’ where parents help children to initiate an activity and only leave them to it once they are absorbed in the activity, and also meeting children in their joy and distress by mirroring the emotion whilst also addressing key attachment needs, were all presented. This was exciting stuff, that threw new light on the foundational genetic systems for positive arousal as well as on the ways in which these systems unfold, depending on  certain genes with specific relational experiences. The fact that babies need our joy to boost theirs is evident in the role that dopamine plays in laying down positive neurological connections- babies simply do not have the capacity to activate these connections without positive interaction with main carers.

Dr Michel Odent, legendary obstetrician and author of many books and medical research papers, talked of the newly recognised phenomenon of male post partum depression. This differs massively from the ways in which women express their depression. Among potential causal factors, the shock of the severe emotional impact of being present at their child’s birth can trigger all sorts of physical ailments that seem unrelated but only present themselves within a short time after the birth. Though it has become the cultural norm for expectant father to be present at their child’s birth, there are associated risks if fathers are not adequately emotionally prepared.

We were delighted further by the work of Dr Suzanne Zeedyk (Honorary Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Dundee University) and her presentation of the ‘connected baby’. Looking at the early communicative interactions of parents and infant, she discussed research on interventions for communicative disorders such as autism, sensory impairment and dementia. The premise of her extensive research is that babies arrive in the world already connected to other people, challenging many of our current beliefs about babies. Suzanne showed excerpts of footage from her documentary ‘the connected baby’ – where a simple nappy changing moment between mother and baby demonstrated the perfect dance of responses between baby and mum- so easily overlooked in our day to day absent mindedness. The question of early intervention programmes, and what these should be, was seen in a new light: are we doing enough to support parents to tend for their babies rather than taking babies away from them?  is taking them away the best course of action in most cases? The implications for the child are HUGE and potentially much more damaging than we currently realise.

Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg presented the latest research in oxytocin – how it is naturally produced by the body in response to feeling safe during  pregnancy and labour, through skin to skin contact and breastfeeding and the effects it has on just about EVERYTHING- metabolism, cardiovascular function, the HPA Axis and mother baby interaction. Kirsten discussed the differences and similarities of endogenous and exogenous oxytocin, the problems that arise when synthetic oxytocin is used to induce and augment labour, and the negative effect these have on natural oxytocin production post birth. The same implications arise with elective cesareans and epidurals: breastfeeding can be much harder to initiate and maintain longer term, and the natural bio feedback between mother and baby can be disrupted so that the natural positive effects of oxytocin- the good feeling associated with it-, are less available to both baby and mother. This can also cause problems with bonding and forming a secure attachment between mother and baby. It was a surprise to find out through Lead Obstetrician Amali Lokugamage (Whittington Hospital, London) that studying the emotional, physical and psychological effects of natural and synthetic oxytocin on birth and on mother and baby is not part of current medical training for obstetricians.  These breakthrough studies are not yet widely known within medical circles.

Our final speaker of the conference was the lovely Marcy Axness who finished off as Robin Grille began- with a look at how parents can help their children hardwire the essential brain circuitry necessary for self regulation, self reflection, imagination, trust and empathy- namely the qualities needed for a peaceful world. Marcy is the Author of ‘Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers’. She is a leading authority in the fields of early childhood development, adoption, pre and perinatal psychology and the neurobiology of attachment. Her work can be found at www.parentingforpeace.com.

All in all I was totally blown away by the 2 days. Not a moment passed where I even looked at the clock and the oxytocin levels in the lecture hall got stronger by the hour, so by the end of day 2, there was so much love in the building the effects were contagious! I did wonder how wonderful it would be if that’s what the inside of labour and postnatal wards felt like, with happy and satisfied midwives and doctors giving the quality of care they want to give, from a starting point of trust and love and respect for mother, father and infant. Even in high risk environments, so much can be done that currently isn’t, to help women and their babies to feel safe, nurtured and to promote normality in labour and birth. Much research has been done to show that for labour to progress well a woman needs to experience similar environmental conditions as when she is going to sleep- privacy, quiet, dim lighting and softness. The hormones of labour and birth are the same released during loving intimate contact and so the tenderness and nurturing required to stimulate these hormones must be considered as vital aspects of care during labour. Antenatal appointments are often stressful experiences for women, where they can feel as though there is no time to be heard fully, they are told what they must do rather than being listened to;  the focus is on what is wrong rather than what is right, routine protocols are put forward as compulsory aspects of antenatal care and women can spend the whole 15 minutes without even any eye contact, let alone a reassuring hug from their midwife. This is not something we can blame on our care team, it is the situation we have got into where forms, formalities and machinery have become  more important than human positive interaction.

We need to find the middle way- the best of both worlds. The information, data and research we have now to an extent that we have never had before. In light of it, we have no excuse to ignore it. The fact that we need science to prove the positive effects of love and nurturing is itself an indication that we are overlooking the most basic and vital needs of people on a global level. Where do we start? With our local communities, hospitals, antenatal groups; through forming links wherever we can and sharing the knowledge and the inherent wisdom of our innate intelligence.

The books I came away with from the conference were:

Dr Menis Yousry: Discover Your Hidden Memory and Find The Real You
Dr Amali Lokugamage: The Heart In The Womb
Margot Sunderland: What Every Parent Needs To Know
Mavis Kirkham: The Midwife-Mother Relationship