Babies learn how to anticipate touch while in the womb,
according to new research by Durham and Lancaster universities.
Using 4-d scans psychologists found, for the first time,
that foetuses were able to predict, rather than react to, their own hand
movements towards their mouths as they entered the later stages of gestation
compared to earlier in a pregnancy.
The Durham-led team of researchers said that the latest
findings could improve understanding about babies, especially those born
prematurely, their readiness to interact socially and their ability to calm
themselves by sucking on their thumb or fingers.
They said the results could also be a potential indicator of
how prepared babies are for feeding.
The researchers carried out a total of 60 scans of 15
healthy foetuses at monthly intervals between 24 weeks and 36 weeks gestation.
Foetuses in the earlier stage of gestation more frequently
touched the upper part and sides of their heads.
As the foetuses matured they began to increasingly touch the
lower, more sensitive, part of their faces including their mouths.
By 36 weeks a significantly higher proportion of foetuses
were observed opening their mouths before touching them, suggesting that later
in pregnancy they were able to anticipate that their hands were about to touch
their mouths, rather than reacting to the touch of their hands, the researchers
Increased sensitivity around a foetus' mouth at this later
stage of pregnancy could mean that they have more "awareness" of
mouth movement, they added.
Previous theories have suggested that movement in sequence
could form the basis for the development of intention in foetuses.
The researchers said their findings could potentially be an
indicator of healthy development, as arguably foetuses who are delayed in this
development due to illness, such as growth restriction, might not show the same
behaviour observed during the study.
The research, published in the journal Developmental
Psychobiology, involved eight girls and seven boys and the researchers noticed
no difference in behaviour between boys and girls.
Lead author Dr Nadja Reissland, in the Department of
Psychology, at Durham University, said: "Increased touching of the lower
part of the face and mouth in foetuses could be an indicator of brain
development necessary for healthy development, including preparedness for
social interaction, self-soothing and feeding.
"What we have observed are sequential events, which
show maturation in the development of foetuses, which is the basis for life
"The findings could provide more information about when
babies are ready to engage with their environment, especially if born prematurely."
Brian Francis, Professor of Social Statistics at Lancaster,
added: "This effect is likely to be evolutionally determined, preparing
the child for life outside the womb. 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
The study builds on previous research by Durham and
Lancaster into foetal development. Earlier this year another of their studies
showed that unborn babies practice facial expressions in the womb in what is
thought to be preparation for communicating after birth.
And in 2012 Dr Reissland published research showing that
unborn babies yawn in the womb, suggesting that yawning is a developmental
process which could potentially give doctors another index of a foetus' health.