What Babies Learn In the Womb
They're doing and thinking a lot more than we used to believe
Perchance, to Dream?
Through ultrasound tests, researchers have seen evidence that babies in utero experience rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is associated with dreaming, at around 32 to 36 weeks. No one knows whether they're actually dreaming, since their brain waves can't yet be monitored, but doctors believe that it's certainly possible.
In fact, the sleep patterns of fetuses in this stage of development closely resemble those of newborns: They spend a lot of their time in REM sleep, but also in a quiet, deep sleep where there is no eye movement. Researchers have also observed babies in utero in a state of quiet alertness, which suggests they may be concentrating on something -- listening to mom talking, perhaps.
Ready for the Big World
Babies eagerly investigate whatever they can get their hands on -- and the fun starts before birth. As early as 20 weeks, fetuses react to what's around them. (Ultrasounds have shown that some try to grasp the amniocentesis needle when it's inserted into the uterus.) But it isn't until the third trimester that they really begin to grow curious about their intrauterine world. Though there isn't a whole lot in there to play with, fetuses entertain themselves by sucking on their hands and fingers (especially their thumb, which they discover at about 18 weeks). They also 'walk' around by pushing on the uterine walls with their feet, and yank, pull, and swing their umbilical cord -- they even practice breathing.
All this playing around helps them develop important reflexes they'll need once they're born. Sucking will not only be crucial to taking in food but will also be a source of comfort. And feeling things with their mouth is an important way for babies to explore things. Filling their lungs and moving the diaphragm up and down -- albeit with fluid instead of oxygen -- is also good practice; by the time the baby makes his entrance into the world, he will have learned to breathe on his own.
Doctors believe that pushing off the uterine wall probably helps the fetus develop the ability to reach his mother's breast soon after birth. When a newborn baby is placed on his mother's bare abdomen, his primal instinct starts to kick in: Within the first hour of life, he'll push his way up toward his mother's breast, guided mostly by scent, according to research by Marshall Klaus, M.D., author of Your Amazing Newborn.
So compelling is the research on this early dance between mother and baby that Dr. Klaus and other neonatal researchers are now urging hospitals to change their procedure for handling newborns: Instead of weighing and bathing the infant right after delivery, they suggest placing him between the mother's breasts immediately after an initial examination and waiting at least an hour after birth to perform any necessary procedures.
All this goes to show that a baby isn't just passively waiting to be born while in the womb. He's already building important skills and developing a strong bond with one of the most important people in his life -- his mother.
Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer who specializes in health and parenting issues. She is also the mother of two boys.