What life is like for your growing baby inside your womb
When I was pregnant with my son, my two-year-old daughter, Carly, would plant her face against the mound of my belly and talk to the baby within. “Hi, baby,” she’d say. “Is it dark in there?”
If only Ben could have answered her question. By the time he was talking, his stay in my belly was a distant memory. But, for many years now, researchers have been trying to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of what babies feel, taste, hear and see in the womb. And their findings are beginning to have an impact on how we keep babies healthy, both inside and outside of Mom’s tummy.
Baby’s sense of touch
A baby’s senses begin to develop in a predictable order, says Heidelise Als, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston. And the first to come on board is touch. By eight weeks of pregnancy, a fetus responds to touch around his lips and cheeks, and by 11 weeks, he has begun exploring his own body and his warm dark nest with his mouth, hands and feet. Ultrasound scans show babies “touching their buttocks, holding onto the umbilical cord, turning and walking up and down the amniotic sac wall on the inside,” says Als. “They are not passively quiet in the womb.”
In the nearly weightless, fluid-filled environment of the amniotic sac, Als believes the fetus uses touch to both soothe and teach himself. “Fetuses are laying down their own cortical networks in the brain,” she says. When babies are born prematurely, she points out, they continue to seek that interaction, but within a dramatically different environment: the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). But the hard surfaces of the incubators neither yield to them nor cradle them. “You will see these little preemies trying to bring their hands together or bring their hands to their face, or lay them over their head and their ear,” says Als. “They search, literally, with their feet to try to find a boundary.”
The unborn child reacts strongly to his mother’s movements as well. Most moms notice that when they touch their belly, the baby kicks back or responds in some way, says Als. “If it’s a firm touch, they may move away and stick out their arm,” as if to ward you off.
Research shows that unborn infants respond to more than just physical touch — they respond to their mother’s emotional state as well. When mothers watch sad films, babies move less. But when a mother laughs, says Als, ultrasound images show that “the baby kind of trampoline bounces.” When she laughs harder, the baby bounces even more exuberantly. “It’s fascinating,” she says. “There’s such an interaction between mother and child on all levels.”
Message to Mom: The atmosphere in your womb is perfect for your baby to explore and learn, says Als. But since babies clearly react to their mothers’ moods, it’s good to try to keep stress levels to a minimum. If you have a high-stress job or are at a particularly hairy point in your life, you might want to take up meditation or some other activity that helps you regain your calm.