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Research into maternal-fetal attachment is increasing yet has not yielded substantive scientific results due in part to the lack of a clear definition of the word “attachment.” Furthermore, a controversy currently exists in the literature with debate focused on the use of the word “attachment” as referenced by John Bowlby when discussing the maternal-fetal relationship. Part of this debate involves the presence or lack thereof of true reciprocal interactions between mother and fetus with the onus on fetal consciousness—is the fetus a sentient being able to consciously interact with its mother? Further variables impacting the controversy involve the lack of a concise definition of consciousness and fetal sentience; there is no agreement on fetal consciousness. Current research demonstrates that fetuses perceive pain, react to touch, smells, and sounds, and display different facial expressions in response to external stimuli. Yet, these reactions may be preprogrammed with subcortical nonconscious origins—they are not universally considered true conscious cognitions. Studies investigating fetal brain development have demonstrated that fetuses do not acquire brain structures necessary for consciousness until 24 weeks gestation age; however, studies have not ruled out the existence of a subcortical consciousness. This paper will conduct a brief literature review of maternal-fetal attachment and fetal consciousness in order to consider fetal sentience as a viable variable impacting the potential for reciprocal interactions, thus supporting use of the word “attachment” in maternal-fetal attachment. Implications for Maternal-Fetal Attachment interventions are also discussed.

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JOURNAL OF PRENATAL AND PERINATAL PSYCHOLOGY AND HEALTH publishes research and clinical articles from the cutting edge of the science of prenatal and perinatal psychology and health. The journal, published quarterly since 1986, is dedicated to the in-depth exploration human reproduction and pregnancy and the mental and emotional development of the unborn and newborn child.

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