Womb of wonders.
27/12/05 - Health section
Womb of wonders
By CHARLOTTE HARDING
Research recently revealed that an unborn baby is able to taste the different flavours of the foods its mother eats - an ability which can affect the tastes a child prefers in later life.
In a study published by the Monell Institute in America, researchers found that babies whose mothers had been given regular doses of carrot juice while pregnant preferred the taste of carrots far more than babies whose mothers had not.
It is thought that the tastes of foods a mother eats can be transmitted to her baby through the amniotic fluid surrounding the child, which it begins to swallow at about the 12th week of pregnancy.
'During an ultrasound scan, it is not unusual to see foetuses sticking out their tongues - where their tastebuds are located - as if they are tasting the amniotic fluid,' says Professor Stuart Campbell, a pioneer of ultrasound diagnosis and consultant at the Centre for Reproduction and Advanced Technology in London.
'Sometimes, you can see a baby doing this screw up its face, as if it doesn't like the taste of what its mother has eaten.'
This is backed up by a study that showed at 15-16 weeks a foetus swallowed more amniotic fluid if it tasted sweet, but less if it tasted bitter. It has been proven that mothers who change their diets immediately after birth may have more problems breastfeeding.
The same processes which flavour the mother's breast milk also flavour the amniotic fluid, so the baby may learn about the flavour of breast milk through swallowing amniotic fluid.
Babies can hear clearly from about the 20th week of pregnancy, including voices, music, their mother's stomach rumblings, sneezes and hiccups.
From the age of 34 weeks, a baby can recognise a piece of music and coordinate its movements in time with it.
Classical music, particularly choral music and piano, have patterns closest to human speech, and are especially enjoyable for a baby. Depending upon the type of music heard, a baby may become excited or relaxed.
Research shows that babies can remember music heard in the womb more than 12 months after birth.
"We now also know that when they are born, babies prefer their mother's voice to that of an unfamiliar female," says Professor Peter Hepper of the Foetal Behaviour Research Centre at Queen's University, Belfast.
"We think this is because a baby is able to hear its mother's voice better than anything else while in the womb, because the vibrations pass directly to the baby through her body. Once born, the mother's voice can therefore be extremely soothing to a newborn child in its unfamiliar new surroundings."
Studies also show that babies recognise and prefer their mother's language and are able to discriminate between this and an unfamiliar language. "Recordings from the womb reveal that speech sounds clearly emerge from the background noise. This may be the beginning of language acquisition," says Professor Hepper.
Touch is the first sense to develop. By eight weeks of pregnancy, the foetus responds to touch around the lips and cheeks and by 14 weeks most of its body responds. Mothers-to-be often report that if they press their abdomen, the baby will respond with a kick.
The foetus touches its face from around ten to 11 weeks and also touches the umbilical cord, uterine wall and, if it is a twin, its brother or sister. "I have noticed that babies often cuddle up to the wall of the uterus, apparently for comfort," says Professor Campbell.
The latest scans clearly show that by the 14th week of pregnancy, a baby can separate its thumb from its fingers and many babies suck their thumbs - and other body parts, including their knees and feet.
"Thumb-sucking can teach a baby about the feel of its skin and the size and shape of its fingers," adds Professor Campbell. "Practising sucking in this way also prepares the baby for an important skill it will need when it is born - breastfeeding."
A study by Professor Hepper's team at Queen's University last year also discovered that a baby's preference for sucking either its left or right thumb in the womb can determine whether it is left- or right-handed.
It is thought that the foetus may prefer one side of its body in the womb simply because that side has developed faster.
The only sense unlikely to be stimulated naturally in the womb is vision, as the mother's clothes and body will block out light. However, with cutting-edge ultrasound techniques, it is now known that babies in the womb do open their eyes.
Though their eyelids are thought to remain closed until the 24th week of pregnancy, some scans have revealed babies opening their eyes in the womb as early as 18 weeks.
"Although it is so dark in the womb a baby is unlikely to see anything, practising opening and closing the eyelids will help him perfect the blinking reflex," says Professor Campbell.
"He will need this once he is born, and throughout his life, to protect his eyes against approaching objects, shield his delicate corneas from harmful light and keep his eyes moist."
Although babies are unlikely to be exposed to light in the womb, studies show that from about 28 weeks of pregnancy, if a strong light is shone on to its mother's abdomen, a baby will move away.
By 20 weeks of pregnancy, the nerve cells in the baby's brain that serve each of the baby's senses are developing - and the sense of smell is no exception.
Studies show that babies exposed to the smell of garlic after birth who were exposed to garlic in the womb responded to the smell far more than babies who weren't.
But it is not just foods that a baby can smell. Studies show that newborn babies recognise their mother's smell, even immediately after birth.
"It is thought the mother's odour passes through the amniotic fluid to the child, too, so that the baby knows who to recognise as the person who will love and protect it when it is born," adds Professor Hepper.
Research shows that a mother's emotions can have an influence on a baby's experience in the womb.
One recent study found that high levels of stress in pregnancy were linked to a child's slow mental and physical development at eight months, lower mental development at two years and greater behavioural and emotional problems at six years.
An Australian study monitored the babies of pregnant women who watched the harrowing film Sophie's Choice.
"The babies whose mothers watched the film increased their movements and had an increased number of heartbeats," says Professor Hepper.
And Professor Hepper's latest studies indicate that a baby's heartbeat is affected by its mother's mood, showing an increase when the mother laughs.
Professor Campbell, who was the first to show that babies smile in the womb, believes babies definitely show happiness and displeasure before they are born.
"Scans regularly reveal babies grimacing, smiling and even laughing,' he says. 'Though some scientists claim they are only reflex movements, it is difficult not to interpret them as signs of pleasure or displeasure."
Watch Me Grow and Your Pregnancy Day By Day by Professor Stuart Campbell are published by Carrol and Brown, priced £9.99 each.
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