Taijiao (literally foetal education) – the premise that maternal behaviour will affect the health and future development of her child – has been taught in Chinese culture for at least two thousand years. It is only fairly recently, however, that modern research has confirmed this to be so. This article looks at the ideas behind taijiao and the evidence for the influence of maternal emotional states, diet and exercise on the lifetime health of the individual.
Conclusion Tiajiao, foetal education, foetal programming – whatever name is given to it – presents challenges of all kinds to pregnant women and to wider society. If, as seems to be the case, emotional and physical stresses during pregnancy can affect the lifetime health of a child, then the implications are profound – both personally and socio-politically.
On a personal level, the idea that every thought, every choice, every experience a woman has might affect her unborn child is an enormous responsibility to bear. For some women, in some circumstances, it might present a welcome challenge – to spend the nine months of pregnancy cultivating inner wellbeing and calmness, eating well, exercising, meditating or doing yoga, communing with her child and so on. For others, it risks inducing waves of guilt and anxiety, especially when the leisure and resources to do this are unavailable.
As Margaret Oates, a consultant in prenatal psychiatry, has written, ‘The modern Western pregnant woman must not drink more than four cups of coffee a day, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, change cat litter trays, eat soft cheese, uncooked eggs or packaged salads or go into the lambing sheds. They should not work too hard or too long, nor at night or be ambivalent about their pregnancies. Now it seems they must not become anxious either.
In the end, we can all only do our best and will inevitably fail in some way. Mothers (and fathers) know this and have been reassured over the years by the words of Donald Winnicott, the psychoanalyst and paediatrician, who talked of the ‘good enough mother’ and ‘the ordinary devoted mother ... an example of the way in which the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby’.
On a socio‐political level, it is clear that strong bonds of family, friends and society as a whole are needed to support a woman during pregnancy. Social policy must therefore facilitate rather than hinder these bonds. It also has to be deeply understood that poverty, poor housing, deprived neighbourhoods, limited access to good quality food and so on all impact on maternal wellbeing. If we accept some of the ideas and evidence behind taijiao, we need to find ways to support all women to achieve the life conditions that can help them to cope better with the inevitable stresses of life and pregnancy. Such measures have to include radically different economic, social and educational policies.
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