The very beginnings of the nervous system

In utero, you have no real tasks other than to grow, and explore your body in very limited ways. You are first aware of the concept of danger even before you have muscles to react with: if something touches you, you freeze and stop everything you can, handing over resources to mom who will keep you safe. Over the next seven weeks, you gradually learn that the umbilical cord, the side of the uterine wall, or something floating in the amniotic fluid with you, are all nothing to be frightened of.

You learn many other things too: that you have a body, which has a right and left side. You learn the concept of sound, and play, and to keep your heads tucked and your muscles soft – while you can move around, there’s not much room to stretch in there!

Being born is an extraordinary experience!

Think about it: one minute, you’re just hanging out in mom’s womb. It’s dark and darker, warm and less warm, and VERY squished up. There are no right angles, nothing totally straight.  Breathing air is a totally unknown concept. You smack your lips and swallow amniotic fluid, and feel your hands in your mouth. Sounds, transmitted at this point through your very sensitive spinal cord, are muffled.

And then one of three things happens: you feel yourself getting slowly then more rhythmically squashed even more, then super-squashed. Your sensitive back twitches, then helps you get into an even MORE squashed place. The rhythmic squeezing and squashing keeps on and on, then your head feels …. Cold?  And not as wet? And nothing touching the top? Finally, your head, then the rest of you is OUT into a cold, very bright and noisy place. There’s nothing immediately touching you, and you automatically take a deep breath and cry. That helps open your lungs even more. Sounds are now heard from your ears as well as your spinal cord.  You are touched in some places and not others. You feel a draft, then you are being rubbed here and there. Did I mention that now there’s tremendous GRAVITY???

Another thing that can happen is that you feel a sudden squeeze, then sudden release, rhythmically over and over, and the above happens.

The third thing is that you’re just hanging out inside of mom, then suddenly experience a lessening of the pressure around you, along with light. Then, as the amniotic sac is opened, the temperature change and you’re now pulled out – suddenly into gravity, noise, light, breeze, and take a breath and cry.

Of course, the first sequence is a natural birth; the second, a Pitocin-induced birth, and the third, a C section.


A baby’s life both in utero and in the first months of life is filled with tasks like getting to know that it exists, and what a body is like. As it grows, it changes into being increasingly able to manipulate its body and interact with its environment.

It learns to tighten its muscles, especially down the back, and to lift its head. Vision is quite poor at first, especially for anything further than mom’s face.

A baby starts out by learning feeling and experiencing. Later it learns higher functions: to make sense of all that sensory information, and then to think and manipulate. But when feeling and experiencing isn’t learned so thoroughly that it’s automatic, the nervous system must compensate.

Consider: if you haven’t thoroughly learned your addition and subtraction facts, solving a long division problem is going to go slower and perhaps be less accurate.

If a car’s tires are only half inflated, and perhaps there’s a teaspoon of sugar in the gas tank, it won’t run as efficiently.

If the basics of ANYTHING aren’t functioning at their best, the higher functions are harder.  The basics of our nervous system – which is more than just our brain and spinal cord – regulate our breathing and blinking, temperature and hormonal balance.  It dictates our gut and heart function, tells us whether we’re hurting or hungry or have to go to the bathroom, all in the unconscious or subconscious mode.

More about all of that next time.