10 Things to Remember about Preverbal Infant Trauma

Preverbal infant trauma is trauma that occurs before a baby knows language and uses words to communicate. In America before 1987, surgery and invasive medical procedures on infants were often done without anesthesia. Sexual assault and complications at birth are two other examples of infant trauma. There are many others, for example, abandonment and starvation.  As a survivor of stomach surgery in 1952 at 26 days old, I have learned much about preverbal trauma and would like to share some key points about what I’ve come to know with those of you who may be struggling to understand your early trauma or that of a friend or family member.

  • It’s not your fault that you don’t remember–you didn’t have words!
  • Through observing your experience of breath, you can come to understand the trauma, for you tried to stop the pain by controlling your breath.
  • Bodies remember preverbal trauma; just ask the places on your body where anxiety or numbness resides.
  • Emotions remember; during trauma, the part of your brain that processes emotion is on high alert, recording everything!
  • Sensations remember trauma and are key to remembering it: smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and touch, both the touch you received and the touch you initiated.
  • Validating our preverbal trauma can be elusive since we associate memory with words.
  • As adults, we’re used to denying or repressing information that could help us understand ourselves as survivors of infant trauma.
  • Infants are sentient beings who feel pain physical and emotional pain.
  • “. . . The baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, . . . babies . . . are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are” (Lehrer, Jonah; “Inside the Baby Mind” 1). Infants register what happens to them big time.
  • Healing from infant trauma is possible, which is what my blog is all about!

16 Responses to 10 Things to Remember about Preverbal Infant Trauma

  1. Thank you Wendy for these 10 clear and concise facts about pre-verbal memory and emotions. Although I’m grateful that so many don’t seem to have been traumatised by older infant medical and surgical procedures, I also know that others have only been able to sort out their symptoms and story in recent years. You give an excellent overview of how early trauma has affected us.

  2. Yes, perhaps as we age and we see life isn’t working out for us as we hoped, we may look back to this very early time to help ourselves understand what might have happened. I’m glad the overview is “clear and concise.” I’m hoping that delivering the material in a brief and accessible way may invite more people to consider it. Good to hear from you, my friend.

  3. Thank you, Wendy, for publishing these 10 issues with pre-verbal trauma. I’d also like to add that there can be pre-verbal anger. When a baby’s needs are not being met…the muscles contract and strain in a hysterical fit. The body and the subconscious mind remembers and when negative events happen later in our adult life, we flip back and react with the same intensity, creating chaos for ourselves and our loved ones. I’m thrilled to be living at this time, because there are several modalities that have recently become available to help people work through these issues. EMDR, Higher Brain Living, TRE, and the Emotion Code, to name a few. Bessel van Der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps the Score” is excellent! I was first introduced to infant trauma by reading Dr. Arthur Janov’s books. He was a hypnotist who took his patients back to the birth experience. I was blown away by the stories of these people because my mother left me at the hospital and never came back. I’m convinced pre-verbal trauma and pre-verbal anger are real. Thank you, Wendy! XoXo

    • Thank you, Mary, for adding to the list. You got me thinking! I’m sure my constant broxing (gritting my teeth) in sleep is an expression of repressed anger, in part. I know it’s also a strategy to deal with mind-numbing pain. As I read your Comment, I felt the tight muscles in my jaw. Yes, we are so lucky to be living now–all those modalities you mention are so key! We know so much more about how the nervous system works. We get it about how the brain copes with trauma and how this trauma requires resolution. I feel very fortunate to be working with a therapist who uses EMDR. For sure, van der Kolk’s book is, to me, the bible about trauma though I was quite disappointed to see that he does not discuss the preverbal trauma of infant surgery. I think he included one example in which a child had undergone a traumatic medical experience. Oh yes, preverbal trauma is REAL, and many are incredulous that an infant can have PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Many people simply deny it, citing that babies can’t remember anything. Well, that’s what the nurses and doctors told the parents of those babies who were operated on with little or no anesthesia or pain control. The fact is, we have many types of memory. We have body memory (including breath memory), sense memory (images, smells, sounds, etc.), movement memory, and emotional memory. There are so many ways newborns and infants in general are sensitive. Case in point: The love parents show for their baby impacts that baby for the rest of his/her life. There are zillions of books and articles about this fact. So too, unmitigated infant pain affects the human being for the rest of her/his life, too–trauma which needs resolution. About you, I’m so sorry that your mother left you. What age were you? Right after you were born? I’d love to hear more about this if you care to share through Comments or by email. In any case, thank you so much for taking the time to Comment. It means a lot to me and to many others. XoXo back at you!!

    • Janov was not a hypnotist. He was a therapist who discovered repressed trauma could be accessed and experienced with positive effect. The Primal Scream was his first of many books. The Feeling Child another that stands out. He was ahead of his time and also left a lot of gaps by suggesting the feeling of repressed trauma was enough in and of itself. There is much more we have to put our attention on for wholeness and healing.

      • Thank you for this comment. Much appreciated. What do you mean by “the feeling of repressed trauma was enough in and of itself”?

  4. Wendy and Mary,
    WOW to Wendy…your writing is amazing. I admire your openness and willingness to share this with the world. I am a 45 year old adoptee who was twice abandoned from my biological teen mom (she gave me up, changed her mind, kept me for a week and then gave me up again). After that, I was bounced around in foster homes until I was subsequently adopted into a family that went on to have 2 bio sons. Needless to say, I have been through a lot and I am now -finally finding- like minded people (like both of you) who are wanting to heal and continuously searching for answers and healing modalities. I have been through years of self sabotaging behaviour and turbulent relationships. I am a mother of 2 and am working hard now to heal this inner trauma (while less so these days) is still keeping me from being the best mother, teacher and (my dream) partner, wife etc. You both are giving me the sense of understanding, and legitimizing what I have always felt. I also now have so much more hope about my own journey towards healing. THANKS SO MUCH!!

    • Hi Lisa, So good to hear from you. How happy I feel knowing that you have “so much more hope” about your healing journey. It’s why, in part, I have been writing about this issue–to be of service, hoping to help others see they are not crazy or warped or sick or beyond repair; they experienced early trauma and are still suffering but can heal if they realize what caused the trauma and take steps to address it. In my first two and one half decades, I had felt hopeless and depressed at times, not realizing that old trauma was very much present in my life, tripping me up. Since finding ways to heal and keep healing, blogging (sharing what I’ve learned and hearing from folks like you) is deeply rewarding. Wow, you really have been through a lot, and it’s great that you’ve found your way onto a positive path, leaving behind “self sabotaging behavior and turbulent relationships.” What gives me the most joy reading is your phrase “legitimizing what I have always felt.” Each of us has deep knowledge of ourselves that may contradict what we’ve been taught. Key is dedicating ourselves to following the threads of insight which, in time, can weave us into wholeness. Accept and affirm the knowledge deep in our bones, called intuition. Validating our intuition, we find our way back to our authentic selves. It’s not easy, but the reward is so great, as you know. So glad you found us, Wendy

    • Thanks, Matthew! I had hoped that the distillation would work and I see it has! Sometimes, a complex subject expressed in bullet points, so to speak, is the way to go. Great to hear from you! And yeah, like Fred said in reply to your comment on his blog, readers’ comments inspire bloggers to keep on keepin’ on.

  5. My therapist of over 30 died. I just found out yesterday while I am crisis working through some of this preverbal trauma that just happened to happen through some Jungian synchronicity events. It has been exhausting and exhilarating! Anyway, a lot of bodywork, meditation getting back into therapy, yoga, writing and so on is what I am doing now. Txs for your site.

    • Hi Kathy,
      So sorry I never responded to your comment. So good to hear you are finding your way with this material. It’s difficult but worth it, isn’t it? I’m just now getting back to blogging. I was diagnosed with bladder cancer March 4, 2019 and saving my bladder and my life has consumed me. But I’m in remission now and can once again devote time and energy to this core issue. Thank you for writing! Would love to hear an update about how you are doing; I promise I will respond in a timely manner. So sorry to hear about the death of our therapist. Therapist of “over 30” meaning years? I know you commented a while ago, but it’s a huge loss and I hope you are ok.
      Warm regards, Wendy

  6. My EMDR and IFS therapist wants to do some preverbal work, so I came looking for any answers. At birth I was rushed by ambulance to another city and stayed in the hospital for 3 months without my parents, then returned after a few days for a final month in hospital. Only released when I reached 4 lbs could I go home. Diagnosed later at 12 years with Pituitary Dwarfism as a cause. Of course, I don’t remember anything but have had a troubled life with anxiety, fear, etc.

    • Hi Paula,

      Sorry it took me so long to answer. My blog notification must be off since I just received notification of your comment the other day and you wrote in February. I will try to fix it. About your situation, wow, of course you’ve led a “troubled life with anxiety, fear, etc.” My gosh, so much trauma and you were only in the world (after birth) for a moment. Could your parents visit you in the hospital? Sounds so very difficult. Reminds me of a story in Jolene Philo’s book Does My Child Have PTSD? What to Do When Your Child is Hurting from the Inside Out published in 2015 by Familius Books. Jolene’s son had to be whisked off at birth and taken to a hospital in another state due to surgeries he needed on his esophagus. And he needed many surgeries so he was often separated from his parents. This book might be helpful for you. I hope some of the blog posts I wrote might me helpful to you. Do check them out. About your current EMDR and IFS therapy, are you doing the preverbal work now? I did work on preverbal trauma in my EMDR therapy and wrote a blog post about that. Put EMDR into the search and look for the post. Perhaps that may be of help. I’d be glad to hear more about how you are doing and whether you are finding any material on my site or other places that is helpful. May you find ways to soothe the anxiety and fear and move toward resolving some of that early trauma so that you may live more happily and with more ease. Would love to hear from you. I will check my site more regularly and not wait for a notification. Wendy

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