I was delighted to have made it to The Taunton Birth Forum this month as I have had such a busy Summer I have missed a few. It is always a pleasure to See Eleanor Copp and her husband Simon and learn from the speakers she invites along.
This month was a real treat with speaker Katherine Ukleja teaching about the embryonic face. Katherine is a Cranio Sacral Therapist, teacher and lecturer. She has also undergone prenatal and birth training with Ray Castellino.
Katherine started off explaining how human babies are born immature compared to other species, and how this means we are dependent on our parents for our basic needs (warmth food etc). Babies are reliant on face to face contact which enables their brain to develop. The baby’s “social nervous system” allows babies to pick out a human face and mimic facial expressions (such as sticking their tongue out) within minutes of birth. This allows baby to engage with parents and communicate it’s needs, as it is helpless otherwise. Through this social engagement and play the baby’s nerves learn to “self regulate”. The baby’s face is a major form of communication, and the helpless baby relies on parents being able to read it’s facial expressions.
Now the technical part
The embryonic stage of development lasts until 8 weeks. during this time all body structures are present and just develop further beyond that point. At 3-5 weeks of development the baby’s face begins to develop. It develops between the brain and the heart in a series of folds that used to be called gills, as they resembled those of fish.
The face is where the internal and external world meet. the outer world covered by the skin of the face, and the inner world of the body, with entrances at the mouth and nose. Exteroception being the sensitivity to stimuli originating outside the body and interoception being sensitivity to stimuli originating within the body.
The structures of the face and head develop in the mesoderm (the middle germ layer of an animal embryo, giving rise to muscle, blood, bone, connective tissue, etc). when the mesoderm is compressed it forms cartillage and when it is stretched it becomes membrane. Bone then develops from the cartillage. The base of the skull is formed from cartillage and are less moveable than the upper cranium. The cranial nerves develop in the folds of the embryonic face and make up what is known as “the social nervous system”. The cranial nerves supply the facial muscles, help babies orientate their heads towards their parents, and alow them to identify the human voice over background noise. The nerves that control expression are very important to humans. As adults we read facial expressions to tell if another human is safe to approach.
One branch of the cranial nerves, the vagus nerve, supplies the heart and lungs. it modulates the heartrate, enabling enough blood to supply the brain. It also allows baby to coordinate sucking, breathing and communicating. The cranial nerves exit the head at the base of the skull.
Because of our large brains our babies need to be born relatively immature. To enable passage through their mother’s pelvis the upper bones of the skull develop seperately and can move over each other (moulding) during the birth process to navigate through the pelvis.
As baby travels through the pelvis it moves under it’s mother’s pubic arch, and at this point there is potential for the nerves to be compressed or overstretched. This is more likely in instrumental births like forceps, ventouse and caesareans where traction is applied to the head to pull the baby out. There is also a possibility of this if the baby is pulled out by the head during a so called normal birth. (Note from Joy: in the normal birth process there should be no pulling on the baby’s head!).
If these nerves are damaged the baby can suffer feeding problems, pain from the injury, impaired hearing and facial expressions. Cranial nerve injury can also affect arousal of the vagus nerve with increased heartrate, inability to sleep and colic. All of these injuries affect the baby’s ability to communicate with it’s parents, and their empathy with their baby. A traumatised newborn baby feeling fear cannot use the “fight or flight” mechanism, so develops a self preservation behaviour of freezing or playing possum. This makes communication even more difficult.
Babies need to communicate face to face from birth as eye contact and empathy encourage brain development. Playing with babies and sharing joy increases dopamine and oxytocin production in the baby, which increase brain growth. In babies the right half of the brain develops first. This ensures emotional strength develops before intelligence. The stimulation of the right half of the brain is important in the first year after birth, as without stimulation these areas can atrophy. A well developed brain leads to empathetic behaviours in the child rather than antisocial ones.
It is a survival mechanism for babies to be able to communicate. Babies read the emotional tone of their carers. If parents are unhappy then the baby will be unhappy.
What I’d like to share from what I learnt is that:
- Babies are born very immature and depend on us for their survival.
- Babies are ready to communicate with their parents from the moment of birth.
- The birth needs to be gentle to avoid damage to the cranial nerves.
- No pulling babies out by their heads!
- If a baby’s nerves have been damaged he may be less able to feed or communicate his needs.
- These injuries can heal with time but craniosacral therapy can help.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom Katherine. xx