How psychologically aware are babies & infants?

Adults cannot generally recall their earliest years of life or life in the womb. However, there is increasing awareness that the foetus, babies and young infants can process certain information, to a greater extent than was once thought.

Baby crying

All the major senses are also thought to be intact in the womb, by the third trimester. Therefore, even before birth, there is evidence that the foetus can respond to sounds in the last trimester and can differentiate between different sounds (De Casper and Spence, 1991).

This has implication for them hearing traumatic sounds such as those associated with domestic violence or other trauma.

Traumatic sounds when combined with the mothers raised cortisol levels (a stress hormone), across the placenta has been thought by some to increase the child's vulnerability. Wadwar (1998) showed an increase in foetal heart rate when the mother was stressed.

Early trauma has been shown to affect how the brain is able to respond, with some structures being adversely affected. In early infancy Perris (2006) found the lower areas of the brain were affected, which regulate body functions and are outside conscious awareness. During toddler years and early childhood, the limbic system with its emotional reactivity and attachment patterns are affected.

It is believed that trauma impact in the first four years of life, when the brains structures are organising, can set the blueprint for attachment and immune system responses in later life. With this in mind, Therapy services for babies and infants are very often sadly under- resourced or absent, relative to wider child services. This is unfortunate as there are sound cost savings and humane reasons for addressing this.

Related reading -

De Casper, A. J., Spence, M.J. Auditory mediated behaviour during the prenatal period: A cognitive view. In Weiss, M. and Zelazo, P. New born attention: biological constraints and the influence of experience. 1991. pp. 142 -176. Norwood. N. J. Ablex.

Morris - Smith, J. A case for pre- verbal memory? In: EMDR: Clinical applications with children. Ed Morris - Smith, J. Association of child Psychology and Psychiatry. Occupational papers. No.19.
Perris, E. E. et al. Long term memory for a single infant experience. Child development 61. pp. 1796 - 1807.

Wadwah, P. 1998. Parental stress and lifespan development. In the developer's of mental health. Ed Friedman. Santiago CA. academic press.