To clarify, FETAL TRAUMA is not the same as FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME, although they both identify effects from a fetus’s environment in utero. 

#1 Children begin feeling and learning in the womb.

We have learned over the years how important it is for an expectant mother to be healthy and happy during pregnancy. The development and growth of her unborn baby can often be affected by the choices she makes. She has to be mindful of the food she eats, the rest she receives, and the stress she feels. Every little thing matters. Why wouldn’t her voice?

In an article about this topic, Alex Stavros writes, “According to Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D., your baby learned to be comforted by the voice and heartbeat of his mother [birth mother] well before birth—a voice that was not yours [adoptive mother]. In the case of adoption, this connective disruption has an impact on the brain and body.”

#2 Chaos outside of the womb affects children in utero. 

Unborn babies feel the stress their mothers feel. Not only that, they feel what is going on in their mother’s world. If she lives in a world of contention, arguments, financial stress, abuse, drug use, fear, and so on, they pick up on these things too. Unhealthy environments can impair or stunt the development of the brain and his or her sense of safety and self-worth. The baby is more likely to be born anxious, insecure, and mentally underdeveloped.

#3 Trauma can be an inherited condition. 

Stavros continues, “Recent studies indicate that trauma resides in the DNA, allowing mental disease and behavioral disorders to be passed down for generations.” I have actually studied this for years, and I love that science is now able to prove that intense emotions are inherited from our ancestors like personality traits, handedness, and eye color. (Discover Magazine wrote a great article about inheriting conditions and emotions from your ancestors through DNA cells. I highly recommend it.)

Now how does adoption relate to all of this information?

Not to state the obvious, but it compounds the issues faced by children who were adopted. I believe it is safe to say that all birth mothers feel intense stress during their pregnancies. The decisions they make for themselves and their children have a life-changing impact. Inherently they will feel stress. And that is not even detailing the chaotic lives of many birth mothers who may be dealing with abuse, abandonment, rejection, judgment, and the like from those in their world.

We also need to acknowledge how the feelings a birth mother has for herself and her unborn child will affect her child. Again from Stavros: “Surprisingly, babies are also able to sense a disconnection or lack of acceptance from their mother while in the womb—leading to attachment issues and developmental trauma down the road.” Not all birth mothers experience a sense of disconnection or a lack of acceptance of their child while in the womb; however, many adopted children recognize either consciously or subconsciously that they have been separated from their biological mother. This itself creates trauma. He continues, “Without the biological connection to their mother, even newborns can feel that something is wrong and be difficult to soothe as a result.”

Fear and misunderstanding often keep this a taboo subject. In my opinion, this topic needs to be discussed more in our adoption communities so that we can understand and address it.

In the past, separation trauma or attachment issues were only acknowledged if a child was adopted at an older age. It is easy to see if a child has more time to bond and be comforted by a birth mother, the likelihood of separation trauma increases. For years, this meant adoption caseworkers and communities did not associate separation trauma or mental underdevelopment or attachment issues with children placed for adoption at birth.

Now, research and more understanding about fetal trauma and primal wounds teach us the true impact of adoption on a child. It is important we understand this information so we can better identify the challenges adoptive children face. The more we know, the better equipped we are to help them deal with their own intense feelings, behaviors, trauma, and mental health challenges. Knowledge is power.

Let’s keep the conversations going. Have you noticed any intense feelings, behaviors, and mental underdevelopment in your children who were adopted? What resources and tools have you found to help you and them understand and identify what is going on with them? As a birth mother have you found ways to remain positive during your pregnancy? Do open adoptions help heal fetal trauma?

Read more about trauma in adoption and how to address it:

Trauma-Informed Care in Adoption

How Can I Help My Adopted Child Cope with Loss and Trauma?

What I Wish I’d Known About How Early Trauma Affects Adopted Children