Fetuses Learn To Anticipate Touch During Gestation
October 8, 2013

Fetuses Anticipate Touch In The Womb

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

While developing in the womb, fetuses are essentially preparing themselves for survival after birth and a new study from a team of British researchers has shown that fetuses can predict their own hand movement as they enter the later stages of gestation.

The UK team said their study could improve understanding about the cognitive function of babies, especially those born prematurely, and their capacity to interact socially, along with their ability to calm themselves by sucking on their fingers. The findings were published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology.

To reach their findings, the scientists performed 60 imaging scans of 15 healthy fetuses at monthly intervals during their development between 24 weeks and 36 weeks. The team watched as fetuses in the earlier stages of gestation tended to touch the upper part and sides of their heads. As the fetuses developed, they tended to touch the lower, more sensitive parts of their faces – such as their mouths.

By the end of the study period, a significantly higher ratio of fetuses were seen opening their mouths before touching them, an indication that they were able to predict contact between their hands and their mouth instead of simply reacting to the sensation of touch, the researchers said.

The scientists also theorized that fetuses have more "awareness" of mouth movement during the later stages of development, as compared to earlier stages. Previous theories have said that these hand-to-mouth movements could form the basis for the psychological development of intentions.

They added that these findings could be a sign of healthy development; adding fetuses that are delayed in development due to sickness may not show the same behavior seen during the study.

The study involved eight girls and seven boys and the scientists said they saw no behavioral difference between the sexes.

“Increased touching of the lower part of the face and mouth in fetuses could be an indicator of brain development necessary for healthy development, including preparedness for social interaction, self-soothing and feeding,” said study author Nadja Reissland, a psychologist at Durham University. "What we have observed are sequential events, which show maturation in the development of fetuses, which is the basis for life after birth.”

"The findings could provide more information about when babies are ready to engage with their environment, especially if born prematurely,” Reissland added.

"This effect is likely to be evolutionally determined, preparing the child for life outside the womb,” said Brian Francis, Professor of Social Statistics at Lancaster University. “Building on these findings, future research could lead to more understanding about how the child is prepared prenatally for life, including their ability to engage with their social environment, regulate stimulation and being ready to take a breast or bottle."

The study builds on previous research published earlier this year that showed unborn babies practice facial expressions, a phenomenon thought to be associated with communication after birth. In 2012, Reissland published a study showing that unborn babies yawn in the womb, a potential indicator of fetal health.