About Early Trauma

What is early trauma?
Why is it important to heal early trauma?
What scientific research supports the BEBA approach?
What are some known causes of early trauma?
What are some of the signs babies exhibit after experiencing trauma?
What are some of the signs older children exhibit after experiencing trauma?
What are common parental responses to child’s early trauma?
What are common signs in teens and adults of early trauma?

What Is Early Trauma?

It has long been known that nicotine, alcohol, drug use and poor nutrition have traumatic effects on prenates and babies. We are learning that stressful family events, emotional tension and the way routine medical procedures are performed may also have long-lasting traumatic effects. In fact, trauma occurs in many different situations. It can come from something as obvious as being born prematurely or something as subtle as losing a twin in the early stages of fetal development. Early prenatal experiences like a death in the family and not being wanted are significant examples. Likewise, being whisked away from one’s parents right after birth can be particularly traumatic, as can interventions like induced labor and birth by caesarian section.

The term “birth trauma” specifically refers to adverse experiences one has during birth, but any traumatic events that take place between conception and about the age of three have particular significance in shaping an individual’s life.

Why Is It Important To Heal Early Trauma?

Gestation, birth and early childhood are remarkable stages in a person’s life. An ever-growing body of research indicates that the experiences one has during these stages profoundly affect one’s long-term physical, emotional, and mental health. Brain development, learning capacity, emotional stability, physical coordination, early language skills, and self-esteem are all affected by life’s earliest experiences. Neurological research shows a direct link between individuals’ experiences and the development of their nervous systems. This means that what infants or prenates experience not only impacts their ability to form bonds and make decisions later in life, it actually contributes to the structure of their brains and nervous systems.

Babies and prenates routinely suffer traumatic experiences that negatively impact their development. These experiences make it difficult for them to manage stress, deal with conflict, develop self-esteem or even fully attach to their parents. In later life, unresolved early traumas affect personality, behavior and relationship formation. They also impact physiological characteristics like balance and the ability to orient in space, and mental characteristics like the ability to focus attention and learn effectively from experience. In short, one’s entire self-image and manner of responding to outside events is affected by early trauma. Additionally, traumatic events impact an infant’s neurological development. Our physiological response to stress is informed by this neurological development, which means that our adult stress responses are likely to be very similar to, and perhaps dependent upon, what we learned as prenates and infants.

BEBA research, and research conducted in the prenatal community at large, makes it very clear that if a baby is hurt, the whole family is hurt. An infant’s ability to perceive its surroundings is truly remarkable. Babies and prenates will readily feel anything their mother, father, or sibling is undergoing. Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of The Developing Mind (1999), points out that prenates and babies learn how to respond to the world around them from their caregivers and are dependent on the caregiver’s help in order to process trauma. Infants are still growing, not yet fully formed, and early experiences and responses are incorporated into their developing bodies and nervous systems.

What a baby goes through, the family goes through. And what a family goes through, the baby experiences as well. This gives family-wide importance to both the resolution of babies’ early trauma as well as the resolution of conflict between (and within) other family members.

Repatterning and healing early trauma also give babies and their families tools that they may not have had before. Children learn how to resource themselves, that is, to find inner-stability when events in the outside world are unsettled. Approaching imprinted trauma at their own pace and in an utterly safe, supportive environment allows the baby/child and family to make sense of their traumatic experience and gives them the opportunity to change how they respond to stressful situations. The nervous system’s response to stress can actually be reordered: hormones are released differently, different parts of the brain are activated, and a difficult situation can be navigated with less stress.

Trauma resolution contributes in many ways to the health and well-being of an individual. Infants who have resolved their early trauma are often more able to sleep through the night. They are more alert, better able to self-attach and breastfeed, and better able to perceive someone else’s state of mind. Dr. Peter Nathanielsz makes a very well-supported and convincing suggestion that our health as adults is dependent upon our prenatal growth and infancy. In his book Life in the Womb (1999), he cites a wealth of information supporting this notion. Timely resolution of trauma and strong, loving familial bonds lead to healthy children and, in turn, healthy adults. Ultimately, and best of all, healing early trauma contributes to the health of the entire family and allows a family to bond much more closely.

What Scientific Research Supports The BEBA Approach?

BEBA is guided by the latest research available in the fields of prenatal and perinatal psychology, infant mental health, neurobiology and cell biology. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s work in the mid-20th century gave attention to children’s attachment process. In the 1960s, the work of Marshall Klaus and John Kennel gave attention to mother and infant attachment and the necessity to allow bonding to occur immediately after birth. Thomas Verny and David Chamberlain, among others, moved this communication system back a step and placed it in the womb. (Verny, 1981)

A growing body of research has shown that the unborn child is a sentient, feeling, remembering, aware being. We now know that what happens in the nine months between conception and birth, and in the first years of life, shapes our personalities and significantly influences the people we become.

More recently, research has shown us how attachment disorders influence the development of the newborn’s brain. In his book, The Scientification of Love (1999), Michel Odent reviews research concerning the importance of the first contact between mother and newborn baby. There is a growing pool of evidence that points to a short yet critical period of time following birth that has long-term effects on an individual’s ability to love and establish healthy relationships.

Daniel J. Siegel presents an analysis and synthesis of the research and theory on the process of attachment and on the brain development of children in his book The Developing Mind (1999). Siegel shows scientific evidence of the fact that when attachment to caregivers is disrupted, a child is likely to develop problems with memory, relationships, self and emotional regulation.

Allan Schore has done extensive research in the field of neurobiology. In Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (1999) he shows that the precise mechanisms by which the infant brain is structured depend on the physiological and emotional responsiveness of the mother with her child.

Neuroscientists are mapping fear conditioning and the body’s response to trauma. James McGaught, a neurobiologist at UC Irvine explains that the amygdala is responsible for triggering fight or flight responses, instructing the body to create a strong memory of the event and to respond similarly to similar events. Thereafter, ‘cues’ associated with the original trauma set in motion a cascade of hormones to mobilize the body.

The way the amygdala functions throughout life is imprinted during the third trimester of pregnancy and the first three months of life, according to neurobiologists cited by Allan Shore. Thus, people will respond differently to later trauma depending on how much unresolved trauma they experienced early in life.

Dr. David Barlow of Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders works with what he calls “talking to the amygdala”. Treatment for phobias consists of recreating the experience, surviving it and thus forming new memories to temper the initial fear response. Fear of heights, for example is treated by taking a person with support to a high place and creating the memory of surviving.

In BEBA, infants and children replay the initial traumatic event over and over until they master it. Adults in Process Workshops likewise physically recreate early events but at a slower pace and well resourced and with support from others. The replay is done with the body, not just with the neocortical mind. The goal is to affect the amygdala directly. Words are used to describe what is happening physically to link the amydala and the neocortex. “You are moving through the stuck place.” Once the initial trauma has been resolved, ‘cues’ no longer stimulate a fight or flight reaction. The infant/child/adult not only is not afraid of the ‘cue’, he or she enjoys the process of mastery and seeks ever-increasing challenges.

What Are Some Known Causes Of Early Trauma?

All of us have experienced some degree of stress or trauma in our early life. Some is medically necessary. The long-term impact is in proportion to the severity and length of the trauma as well as the degree the trauma interferes with the child connecting with its mother and father. Any event is less traumatic if accompanied by loving support and connection.

  • Unwelcoming or fearful feelings at discovery of pregnancy
  • Stressful or abusive relationship between parents during pregnancy or after birth
  • Maternal stress, fear or depression during pregnancy or infancy
  • Child was not wanted for some part of pregnancy
  • Considered or attempted abortion
  • Biochemical stresses during pregnancy from nicotine, alcohol, pesticides, etc.
  • Twin lost during pregnancy including early pregnancy or during birth
  • Chemical induction of labor
  • Fetal monitors that are screwed into fetus’ skull
  • Premature birth
  • NICU experience with all accompanying medical interventions
  • Unusually long or unusually fast labor.
  • Being stuck during labor
  • Cord tightly wrapped around the neck
  • Near death experience or deprivation of oxygen
  • Medical interventions such as C-section, forceps, vacuum extraction
  • Anesthesia which breaks the contact between mom and baby
  • Separation from the mother after birth or for extended periods during infancy
  • Painful medical interventions such as heal sticks, spinal taps, etc.
  • Maternal postpartum depression or strong anxiety
  • Being given up for adoption
  • Death in the family
  • Unresolved traumatic history in parents or ancestors, such as early abuse, loss of a parent, traumatic birth, or being given up for adoption
  • Hospitalization or surgery as an infant, including circumcision
  • Any particularly painful accident, injury or illness

What Are Some Of The Signs Babies Exhibit After Experiencing Trauma?

  • Glossed-over eyes
  • Cross-eyes or divergent eyes
  • Total or partial inability to orient when confronted by new surroundings
  • Too little tone or too much tension in their muscles
  • Startle response to sound or movement
  • Jerky arms, legs and head
  • Involuntary shaking or tremors
  • Constant, weak, or “absent” crying
  • High-pitched crying sounds
  • Inconsolable crying and crying without apparent cause
  • Hypersensitivity to near or direct touch
  • Desire to not be held
  • Falling asleep when over-stimulated
  • Inability to grasp
  • Nursing/feeding difficulties
  • Arching
  • Splaying hands
  • Excessive hiccups
  • Frequent gagging
  • Avoidance of eye-contact

What Are Some Of The Signs Older Children Exhibit After Experiencing Trauma?

  • Hyperactivity
  • Coordination and balance problems
  • Gait problems
  • Toilet training challenges
  • Speech delays
  • Learning disabilities
  • Tantrums
  • Inappropriate aggression/timidity
  • Depression
  • Nightmares
  • Response out of proportion to stimulus
  • Inability to make eye contact
  • Inability to ask for help
  • Rage toward parent(s) or others
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Health challenges like asthma and seizures
  • Harmful behavior towards siblings
  • Tactile defensiveness (desire to not be touched)

What Are Common Parental Responses To A Child’s Early Trauma?

When a baby or child is less available for bonding and attachment due to early trauma, the baby or child may not respond as expected to parental attempts to soothe, comfort, connect. This can affect the parents’ responses. Some parental responses include:

  • Overwhelm
  • Shame/Guilt
  • Exhaustion
  • Sleeplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Helplessness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Post-partum depression or anxiety
  • Numbness
  • Conflict between parents
  • Difficulty asking for support

What Are Common Signs In Adults Of Early Trauma?

All of us have experienced early stress or trauma to one degree or another. Unresolved early trauma can significantly interfere with current daily life. As more recent traumatic events occur, they layer on top of our earliest imprinting. In fact, our ability to recover from traumatic events as older children and adults is dependent on our resilience or lack of it due our earliest traumatic imprinting. Teens and adults can manifest any the signs listed under children plus:

  • Difficulty in forming and maintaining a healthy primary relationship with a partner
  • Aggression manifested as acting out, destructive or criminal behavior
    Excessive timidity in everyday life
  • Inappropriate flight or fight response to non-threatening circumstances
  • Difficulty mobilizing effectively in the face of real aggression or danger
  • Difficulty in setting healthy limits and boundaries, saying ‘no’ when appropriate
  • Merging inappropriately with others to one’s own detriment
  • Difficulty in responding empathetically to others
  • Confusion, difficulty making decisions
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, physical mutilation, over or under eating
  • Excessive risk taking, dangerous driving, disregarding the safety of others
  • Forced sex or having unprotected sex when children are not wanted
  • Failing to take responsibility for one’s actions, blaming others
  • Difficulty setting appropriate goals and working toward them
  • Difficulty in foreseeing the consequences of one’s actions.
  • Consistent difficulty with some aspect of a task: intention, preparation, action, follow through or integration.
  • Difficulty holding a job or establishing oneself in a satisfying career
  • Inability to successfully establish oneself in the world as an independent adult
  • Difficulties in parenting, abusive or neglectful behavior towards children
  • Difficulty in establishing an effective support system of family, friends, teachers, mentors, and/or professional

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