What are the two main things that pregnant women want to learn about? Most commonly, it’s the birth process and what gear they need for their baby.
Both of these are obviously important, and need care and attention. But what also deserves attention is recognising that pregnancy is not just a time of physically getting ready for a baby, but also mentally and emotionally preparing for this new person in our lives.
Many women and their partners naturally do this to some extent, and so it can be useful to be aware of why this is such an important part of the process.
So why is creating this emotional space for babies during pregnancy important? Psychologist and psychotherapists used the term ‘reflective function’ (sometimes called ‘mentalisation’) to describe the way that we use our capacity to consider others’ internal lives, with their separate emotional needs, thoughts and feelings. Parental reflective function describes a parent’s ability to consider their baby’s separate internal life and how their baby’s behaviour is a clue to their internal ‘goings on’.
It’s been shown that when parents use this capacity to mentalise their baby in pregnancy, their babies are more likely to be securely attached. And this matters, because secure attachment leads to a raft of positive outcomes for the child, not just emotionally but cognitively and socially too.
So, how can you create this space? Most people will naturally do a bit of this during pregnancy, and there are things you can do to support this, such as:
- Talking to your bump. You could try discussing what you are up to (‘So now I’m going to go for a swim. I wonder whether that feels different for you?’)
- Interacting with your baby when they kick (‘Hello! How is it in there? A bit cramped now?)
- Maybe sing some songs or nursery rhymes to your baby (If you feel self-conscious, maybe do it when no one is around.)
- When you’re relaxing, maybe rub your bump and ask the baby how they are doing
- Some people like journalling or writing letters to their baby. You might never show your child these letters, or else you might find that it’s a really lovely thing to look at when they are older.
- You might talk to other people about your thoughts about who this baby might be, whether you think they might be like you or your partner, what your hopes are for them.
- Scans can be really helpful, especially later scans and 4D scans that show your baby looking almost the same way as they might appear after birth. This can be especially helpful for partners.
Partners can do it too
Now some of these things are easier for mothers to do rather than partners, but it’s important for partners to get involved too. It’s amazing to know that the human voice is one of the only sounds that is unchanged in utero, so if you’re both talking to your baby whilst you are pregnant, they are very likely to recognise both your voices when they are born.
What if you’re struggling to mentalise your unborn baby?
If it’s feeling really hard or anxiety-provoking to think about your baby in this way, that can be for a wide variety of reasons, such as if you have had health scares during pregnancy or experienced fertility issues. It can be hard to think about who your baby is if you’re experiencing a lot of stress, have had a previous birth trauma, your baby was unplanned or if you are disappointed in the gender of your baby.
You may find this distressing or you might not notice how you’re feeling. If you are noticing that you’re not able to create space to think about your baby during pregnancy and you’d like to do something about it, there are lots of interventions that can help. Maybe start with trying some of the activities I’ve mentioned, or if that doesn’t feel enough, speak to your midwife about how you are feeling.
Counselling can be really helpful to help you identify why you might be struggling to connect with your baby. Therapies such as EFT (tapping), CBT or birth trauma resolution can be really helpful if there is an anxiety that is preventing you from being able to bond the way you would like to.
Pregnancy is a great time to consider if you might be finding it hard to bond with your baby, as it allows you space to make changes before your baby is born. Being able to recognise that is a massive step, and will really have a positive impact on both you and your baby.
Sarah Wheatley is a BACP Registered Psychotherapist with a background in social research and psychology. She is really interested in why some people find motherhood harder than others and what can be done to prevent it. She has spoken to the media and worked with the Scottish Government to help raise awareness about what can help women to have a better experience of becoming, and being, mothers. She manages Birth and Beyond and you can also connect with her on Twitter @_birthandbeyond