For Schools | Begin Before Birth

Lesson Plan



Begin Before Birth is a website about how the influence of the environment begins in the womb. It is based on evidence showing what a mother feels during pregnancy can have a lasting effect on the development of her child.


It provides a clear and concise introduction to the areas of fetal programming, fetal development and epigenetics.  It examines the evidence and the mechanisms for how stress in the mother’s environment can affect her foetus.


This website was put together by researchers from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London under the guidance of Professor Vivette Glover, Professor of Perinatal Psychobiology. The films were produced by Windfall Films.



Students will need access to individual PCs with Internet access and sound. Ideally, the room will be equipped with a projector to display the teacher’s PC.


Related Curricula:

In schools:

  • A Level Psychology courses
    • AQA A – ‘Schizophrenia and Mood disorders’ and ‘Stress’
    • AQA B – ‘Genetic explanation of behaviour’  ‘Schizophrenia and Mood disorders’ and ‘Stress’
  • Higher Tier GCSE Science and Biology courses where discussion of environmental vs inherited factors takes place – epigenetics and evolution sections are particularly relevant
  • A Level Biology courses

Health professionals:

  • The website contains many links to related areas as well as links to key pieces of research. It could be used as a summary of the key ideas and a basis to start a research project.

Suggested Lesson Plan


  • Instruct students to access the website and introduce the website by reading the beginning section and then clicking on the video ‘What happens in the womb can last a lifetime’
  • Ask students to click on ‘Fetal Programming’ and read the page
  • Then to click on ‘Baby and Child’ and read the page
Activity 1

  • Click on ‘The Stroop Game’ in the ‘Schools‘ section – read through the introduction and ask the students to play the game – using sound improves the game.
  • Stimulate a quick discussion by asking the students: ‘How did you feel whilst playing the game?’ and “If you were pregnant, what do you think the effect would be on your fetus?”
Activity 2

  • Ask students to click on ‘Placenta and Fetal Brain’ in the ‘Science’ section and read the page, playing the animation
  • Click on ‘From Cortisol to Cortisone‘ in the ‘Schools‘ section – read through the introduction and ask the students to play the game.
  • Once again, stimulate a quick discussion by asking the students: ‘How did you feel whilst playing the game?’ and “If you were pregnant, what do you think the effect would be on your fetus?”
Activity 3

  • Click on Epigenetics in the ‘The Science’ section. Students could read the page and then and then watch the film at the foot of the page or, just watch the film.
  • Click on Evolution in the ‘The Science’ section and read the page
  • This can be used to stimulate a discussion on epigenetics posing questions such as, ‘What has more influence, genetic or environmental factors?’
Activity 4

  •  Click on Charlie’s Story in the ‘Implications’ section and then ask the students to watch the film at the foot of the page.
  • Class discussion based around the question, “Was Charlie responsible for his behaviour?”
 Further workStudents could be asked to research any of the areas mentioned by clicking on the links to the research papers as starting points. A presentation could be prepared summarising their key findings and delivered to the class in a future lesson.

An alternative idea would be to set the activities as homework and ask students to prepare responses to the discussion questions that includes references to the key pieces of research. This material could be used to debate the questions outlined in the lesson plan during the next lesson.



1. How may a mother’s emotional state affect the development of her baby in the womb?

2. How can the father help?

3. What do you think the evolutionary reasons may be for the mother’s emotional state during pregnancy having an effect on her unborn baby?

4. What is epigenetics?

5. When do you think the fetus may start to feel pain?

6. Charlie’s Story:

What do you think? Is Charlie responsible for his actions?

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From Cortisol to Cortisone

Stress can have a variety of physiological effects on the body.

During pregnancy, excessive stress can adversely affect fetal development, and thus it is important for the mother to remain calm.
Cortisol is particularly important for mediating the effects of maternal stress, and the placenta acts a barrier to limit fetal cortisol exposure.

The placenta does this through the action of the enzyme 11-β hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11-βHSD2) which converts active cortisol to inactive cortisone
However, increased maternal stress has been shown to reduce placental 11-βHSD2 expression and increase fetal cortisol exposure.

See if you can use placental 11-βHSD2 to protect the fetus from maternal cortisol and keep the ratio of cortisol:cortisone below 1:10



The Stroop Game

If the mother is stressed, anxious or depressed during pregnancy then the resultant changes in her physiology can be transmitted to the fetus, impacting upon fetal development and subsequent childhood behavioural and emotional responses.

Research has shown that the older fetus can respond at once to how the mother feels. If she is anxious the fetal heart rate goes up. This has been shown in an experiment in which the pregnant mother is asked to play the Stroop computer game, and the fetal heart rate is monitored at the same time

Try the Stroop test for yourself, and look out for how mistakes affect the heart rate of the fetus.




What happens in the womb can last a lifetime



The role of Epigenetics



Charlie’s Story: