Birth & the Origins of Violence

hospital nursery-smFrom: The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health  (APPPAH)

Author(s): David B Chamberlain


Jolted by the epidemic of violence today, parents, legislators, criminologists, policemen, theologians, psychologists, teachers, politicians, and health care providers are all alarmed and looking for some deeper understanding that might lead to practical steps to deal with the problem. The result of this feverish activity is a massive and multiplying literature measured in the thousands of articles, books, conferences, and media productions.

Nevertheless, in all this activity the origins of violence early – very early – in life are rarely explored.

Introduction (cont.)

Violence in the womb and at birth has always been of concern to members of APPPAH, many of whom are psychotherapists privy to the revelations which expose the consequences of violence at this first stage of human development. Other APPPAH members who work in neonatal intensive care nurseries or labor and delivery rooms witness the repetition of violence in these settings and ponder what the consequences will be for these babies in the future.

We have acquired the conviction that any violence which greets a baby in the womb or around the time of birth will serve as a silent and unconscious form of conditioning which acts like a template for future relationships. This conditioning – depending upon its frequency and severity – can affect a person's physical and mental health for decades to come.

Ironically, in modern hospital birth, violence and pain have become routine for babies!

For most of the last hundred years, neither obstetricians nor psychologists regarded pain as a reality for newborns. Consequently, doctors working with babies have not hesitated to expose them to harsh environmental conditions which violated their senses and routinely upset them using painful instruments and protocols. Nor have they hesitated to use powerful chemicals in the form of drugs and anesthetics.

All these sharp departures from what normally happened at a home birth have profoundly altered the experience of birth for recent generations of babies. During this time period babies have never been silent. It is virtually universal for them to protest being jabbed with needles for blood samples or vitamin K shots, to react against abrupt manipulations like being held upside down by the feet, rushed through space, or handled by a series of strangers.

Their skin is extremely sensitive (and, indeed, serves as a powerful form of communication) so it should be no surprise that they show their dislike for being roughly rubbbed and "cleaned" and are known for their trademark screams and cries at birth! In sum, professionals have been making babies angry, afraid, defensive, sad, and disoriented – for the greater part of a century since medical management of birth became the "norm" in the United States.

Research activities focusing on birth practices has followed these violent innovations at a great distance, all too often warning of danger long after the damage was done. The unforseen results of this new way of birth may finally be revealed in the angry behavior of generations of men, women, and children born in violence. We have been impregnated with drugs from the first moment of life. Are we so fascinated with drugs and the altered states they evoke because we were introduced to them at birth? Some rare research findings point to these connections.

Growing evidence of this kind led us to organize the conference held at Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco in the Fall of 1995. The conference brought together experts from many disciplines who regularly probe the early origins of violence and who have made the connection between trauma and fearful and angry behavior. In this section of the website, we offer a window into this important field of study and the international conference, "Birth and Violence: The Societal Impact"

In the column "Perspectives on Violence" we offer the views of persons who have made important contributions to understanding the prenatal/perinatal roots of personal and social violence. In addition to these excerpts you will find "Featured Papers" where "white papers" are reprinted in full. Finally, we offer the column, "In the Headlines", where breaking news contains important revelations about the origins of violence. If you are aware of such headline stories, please contact the Editor: David Chamberlain