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Baby blues: Can trauma pass to the unborn child?

Article By: Angeline Albert, News Editor

Traumatised children are attending nurseries throughout the UK and although one may look to the first four years of a child’s life for possible causes, many people are less aware that trauma can infiltrate the womb and reach the unborn child.

Foetus at four months old

Shock trauma

‘One off’ trauma also described as ‘shock trauma’, can be experienced by a child following, for example, the death of a parent. However it is the ‘ongoing stress faced every single day’ by a child as it grows, described as developmental trauma, which ‘causes the most harm’, according to parenting expert Jane Evans.

Trauma in the womb

A child’s exposure to developmental trauma can stem from an expectant mother’s pain and Ms Evans, who trains early years practitioners in nurseries across the UK says: “Research has led scientists to believe the effect of trauma on the developing brain can begin as early as three weeks after conception.”

Other research by Dr Elysia Davis at the University of Denver has focussed on the hormone cortisol, which anxious mothers can produce and pass to the unborn foetus.

The scientist found anxious expectant mums have cortisol levels higher than normal early in the pregnancy and their newborns are more sensitive to stress than other babies. The babies with higher cortisol levels had a greater stress reaction to having their blood taken than other babies. At two years-old, they were far more anxious when given tasks to do compared to other children. “These toddlers consistently showed more fearful behaviours. Instead of enthusiastically engaging in play with the stranger with the ball, for instance, the toddlers would instead stand frozen by the wall or run back to their mothers”, Dr Davis told Newsweek.

Brain matters

When the children in Dr Davis’ research were aged between six to nine-years-old, their MRI scans showed the amygdala (part of brain linked to response to frightening stimuli), was larger than normal.

“Not only are mothers reporting that the children show anxious behaviour, such as being scared of going to school but we can see differences in the way their brains have developed,” Dr Davis says.

One mum’s experience

Dealing with an anxious schoolchild too scared to leave mum's side, is a reality for some mums. Having suffered four miscarriages before her first child was born, one mother writing in an article for Parenting spoke of her anxiety passing to her unborn child.

“It was clear she was a very sensitive child. When she started school it got worse. Every day she would have to be physically restrained so I could leave. There would be begging, tears, screaming, and finally I would have to run from the classroom while her teacher held her down. When I asked her about it, she’d say she felt worried. She didn’t know why.”

Tears at the school gates

A child psychologist said her daughter was carrying her trauma, despite being unaware of her mother’s previous miscarriages. The child has since had therapy and can now say goodbye at the school gates but struggles to be alone in her room.

‘Primed’ for anxiety time bomb

Jane Evans agrees with Dr Davis that pregnant mums experiencing ‘extended periods of anxiety’ whether it be because they are stressed at work, in prison or something else, results in their child’s brain “developing already primed to being more stressed and to be more anxious”.

Harder to sooth

“So this little baby is born who is much more ‘wired’ for stress. Doesn’t like being picked up and held and all the things you would normally do with a baby, they aren’t so easily soothed by it".

Jane Evans says signs of trauma include:

-Cries a great deal or hardly cries.

-Baby is quite stiff, tense muscle tone including tense stomach, could result in vomiting a lot, difficulty feeding, 'fuzzy' eating.

-Rocks themselves a lot to self-sooth.

-Overly quiet/withdrawn. Hardly reacts to anything. No joy from keyperson/activities, not curious.

-Soils themselves a lot.

-Bigger, more sustained reaction to change e.g. hunger.

-Attention seeking e.g. Keeps hurting other children, ‘clingy’.

-High risk-taking behaviour; maybe putting themselves in danger a lot.

-Self-harming: picking at skin, pulling out hair, eyelashes, banging head.

She recommends a lot of holding, rocking and soothing of babies. “If a baby can’t tolerate being held, massages can help or a stroke with a finger on the head. It’s hard because the adult may not get a lot back in response. People need to understand that more time and patience is needed for that child. All they are trying to do is connect.”

A spokeswoman for the National Day Nurseries Association, referring to anxious children says “There should be no ‘surprises’ in the baby’s/child’s daily routine.” This includes same key person, staff, care routine, ‘familiar' toys etc.


Traumatised child is like a soldier on alert

The primitive part of the brain, described as the survival brain, has the emergency fight/flight /freeze system that develops in the womb. Jane Evans says: “A child with trauma, if they hear an adult scream out in joy or shout, for them it’s like they are a soldier on patrol in Afghanistan, expecting any minute to be blown up. If a car backfires, they may have the urge to run out the door because they are in survival brain mode most of the time”.

She argues consequences such as time out in the ‘thinking chair’ is counterproductive for the anxious child. “The child is seeking attention to make an emotional connection. If we send a child to sit on a chair how is that nurturing our emotional connection with them? And if it’s not, don’t do it.”

“We have so many anxious adults present in the lives of children. Some of the early years people I train with are so anxious.” Her recommendation for nurseries is that a calm, emotionally available adult be near the child. To achieve this, they must:

Be calm

"Be calm first in yourself. A traumatised child can pick up on your emotional state from across the room.” If staff arrive at work in an anxious state, Ms Evans recommends making breathing exercises a regular little game played with the children.

“When you take those breaths with them you are actually calming yourself down before you do address anything with that child. This takes a child out of ‘survival’ fight/flight mode. Then if you can teach a child they can calm themselves with some lovely big breathes” she inhales deeply and out, “that’s a gift for life”.

Be curious

"Be curious about how they feel. No point asking ‘what made you do that’, because they don’t know, they don’t have much of a cortex in their brain.

"If you say ‘I’ve told you not to do that’, they shut down the learning part of the brain and go into survival mode. “Do ask ‘You seem a bit sad today, are you okay?’ ‘I wonder if you were anxious that Billy came near you.’ If we are not curious, the child will never learn to connect how they felt with the action that happened.”

Nurture empathy

Encourage curiosity about another child’s feelings. “I think Billy looks a bit sad now, do you think Billy looks a bit sad? Later, you could ask ‘If we are feeling sad or worried what could we do next time?’”

Nursery staff on the frontline of anxiety, must be academically equipped to deal with anxiety, Ms Evans believes. “Anyone working in early years and education, should have running through the whole of their training an understanding of brain development and early attachment and trauma. That should not be a module or add on. It should be in EYFS. It underpins everything concerning early years. After safeguarding this is the most important training.”

Published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers on 21 March

Little Meerkat’s Big Panic

For anxious children, Jane Evans has written a storybook ‘Little Meerkat’s Big Panic’ with three characters representing three parts of the brain: a meerkat; primitive/survival brain, an elephant; emotional brain and a monkey; clever brain. The story shows children (aged two to six) an easy way to calm their body and brain when they feel anxious.

“Pregnant mothers can’t avoid some stress. There are always things you can do after a baby is born. If an infant comes to the nursery setting and has a great experience of being in a relationship with a caring adult that really does offset a lot of the trauma.”

To read Jane Evan’s childcare tips or view her TED talks visit


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