Montessori and the Prenatal Stage of Development

Do babies learn before they are born? A parent once asked Maria Montessori, “When do you say education begins?” Her answer was immediate and clear. “Children begin to learn nine months before they are born.” Science is finally catching up to Montessori’s understanding.
Over­whelm­ing evidence, such as that found in Thomas Verney’s remarkable book, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child , demonstrates that the child before birth is conscious, aware and receptive. The pre-born child is an intelligent, conscious, highly competent person, seeking relationships, learning language and search­ing for love and affection from his or her parents.
Most of us do not consciously remember events that happened before the age of three or four. Because of that, scientists and psychologists made assump­tions that there are no memo­ries or psycho­logically significant events during this period.

What is she remembering?

Age-regression studies of human memory, however, clearly tell us that we all can remember what it was like in the womb, as well as the thoughts and feelings of our parents about our impending arrival.
Because of the assumptions that there is no active psychological processing in the first years, as recently as fifty years ago, infants were operated on without anesthetics. Because of these assumptions, the unborn have been largely left alone in the womb, bereft of heart-felt contact from their parents. Think of being alone in a room for six, seven or eight months without emotional­ contact or mental stimu­lation, and then at birth being snatched from your mother, whisked off to a cold metal scale and a nursery with scarce­ly a thought about how you might feel about it all. It is not a comforting picture.
Maria MontessoriThe miracle of development occurs hidden within the woman’s body. What kinds of influence do we have? What role can education possibly play? The answer to that question depends on how we define education. Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy’s first woman physician and one of the great educators of the twentieth century, defined educa­tion very broadly as “Help to life.”
How can we help life during the prenatal stage? How can we remove potential obstacles? How can we best cooperate with the forces of nature in the development of a strong person? Dr. Montessori believed that there are laws of life. As parents and educators, we do well to learn them and be obedient to them. These laws govern when certain sensitive periods in development come to the fore. A good example is when a child starts to babble. The energy of life is on the vocal cords and short of drastic measures such as taping a child’s mouth shut, we cannot start or stop the babbling. So we smile at the child and babble back — assuring that the child learns that his babbling will lead to communication. When we are obedient to the sensitive periods, we simply make certain our children have the experiences and materials at hand to develop the function associated with that specific sensitive period.
What laws of life may operate during the prenatal period? A key question is whether the child is conscious in the womb. Does he have a sense of identi­ty? Does he have a memory? Stop and think for a moment. If the child is conscious at birth, he didn’t suddenly become conscious in the birth canal, since premature babies born at seven and even five months are also con­scious when they are born. So when does it start? Brain research suggests six months of gestation, perhaps earlier.
Thomas Verney writes in his book, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child , “The unborn child is a feeling, remember­ing, aware being, and because he is, what happens to him-what happens to all of us-in the nine months between conception and birth molds and shapes person­ality, drives and ambitions in very important ways.” (1981, p. 15). Michael Gabriel, psychologist and author of Voices from the Womb says, ” My work has convinced me that our awareness begins much further back than psychologists once believed, and that human consciousness extends beyond the limits of the five senses and the brain.” (1992, p. 11).
In this section of our website, we will offer ongoing investigation into the prenatal period and how we can work with our unborn children in the most effective way.