A baby’s experience before birth is still largely unknown — but some research suggests they may sense how a pregnant parent feels.
Experts are still learning about what can be sensed from inside the womb, like joy, stress, and whether or not an unborn baby can feel unwanted.
A bigger mystery, still, is how much this impacts a child later in life.
If you’re an expecting parent and you’re curious about what your child can feel, you’re not alone. We look at some ways to keep your stress levels balanced and bond with your baby.
A note about language
In this article, we discuss “mothers” carrying children as that is how the research is presented. However, there is a difference between sex and gender — people of many gender identities can get pregnant, and not all will identify as women or mothers.
From a psychological stance, it’s difficult to say.
“Babies who are already born can experience rejection from a mother. There are decades of research on attachment bonds that help explain this. However, we do not know if unborn babies can experience rejection from a mother. This is a difficult area to research and little is known,” says Emily Guarnotta, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Merrick, New York.
From a neuroendocrine standpoint (as in, the chemical or hormonal exchange between mother and baby), it may be possible. It’s well-established that a mother who is in distress releases stress hormones, which can impact the development of the child.
Research is still scarce on the long-term implications, but a 2018 study did note that people who believe they were unwanted were more likely to have an insecure attachment style as adults.
If you are struggling to feel connected to your unborn baby, try not to beat yourself up, says Guarnotta. “Many parents have trouble with this, especially those who have experienced a previous perinatal loss, like a miscarriage or stillbirth. Staying detached from a pregnancy can be a form of self-protection,” she explains.
Not at all stress is bad. In adults, eustress (also known as “positive stress”) can motivate you to take action and foster personal growth. The same may be true for babies in the womb.
A 2015 study supports this view. Experts noted that short-term stress doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on a developing baby. However, too much stress over the long term can pose challenges via the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, into the amniotic fluid.
A 2019 study notes that the existing literature has found links to stress during pregnancy and babies with:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- challenges with language
- traits of autism
However, it’s worth noting that there’s simply not enough information to assume that stress during pregnancy is solely responsible for these effects, as children may be raised by parents who continue to experience stress, says Guarnotta.
“Parents who are chronically stressed may have difficulty managing their children’s behavior and emotions, which could explain why children are at risk for these outcomes,” she explains.
“If you are feeling stressed during pregnancy, do not beat yourself up. Stress is very normal and there are steps you can take to help manage it.”
- improving self-care
- speaking with a therapist
- taking medication (in some cases)
You may also find it helpful to try deep breathing exercises and mindfulness practices, which can engage your parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the rest-and-digest mode).
There are different cultural and spiritual beliefs about what babies can experience in the womb and, of course, this can be difficult to measure empirically.
But, so far, some research suggests that babies can experience sound, some visual processing, and even pick up on a mother’s emotions before birth.
In a 2013 study, researchers played the same words over 25,000 times while a baby was in the womb. When the baby was born, their brain activity (measured using EEG) suggested that they recognized the sounds.
Babies are affected by their parent’s emotional state while in the womb, but the full extent is still unknown, says Guarnotta.
For example, when mothers feel joy their bodies release oxytocin, also known as the “bonding hormone.”
Tough emotions may have an impact as well, but recent research is limited. A 2020 study noted that growing babies can be impacted by mood changes, trauma, and complications during pregnancy.
Many factors have the potential to interrupt bonding with a child in-utero, including:
- anticipatory anxiety
- financial distress
- hormonal changes
- substance use
- unplanned or unwanted pregnancy
- partner abandonment
If possible, consider carving out some time to ignore any distractions and “just be” with your baby, says Guarnotta.
“Try to find a few minutes each day to do something with the baby, whether it is read a book, feel the baby kicking, or doing a quiet meditation.” She says that “parents can bond by talking, singing, or reading to their babies while in utero.”
Babies in the womb can pick up on some sounds, visuals, and emotions.
A mother’s stress can lead to the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, which may impact the baby’s in utero development. However, there are many practices that can promote stress relief.
You may also find it helpful to spend a few minutes a day bonding with your baby. “Even just 5 to 10 minutes a day can be beneficial,” says Guarnotta.