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Parents who have had so-called 4D ultrasounds might have noticed their baby doing fascinating stuff in the womb, including sucking their thumb, yawning, and making grimaces.

Researchers from Durham and Lancaster universities have seen similar things in a study of ultrasounds, and suggest that unborn babies practice crying, similing, and other facial expressions in order to learn to communicate after birth.

The study saw fetuses smiling, eyebrow lowering, and nose wrinkling. Ultrasound images released by the research team show clearly how babies smile and "cry". Dr Nadja Reissland, the lead researcher, said that their findings were important because understanding normal development also means medical professionals can identify problems more easily.

Crying is, of course, a newborn's main mode of communication. A cry can mean many things and it's up to the new parents to figure out which kind of cry signals which kind of need. A crying baby may well be hungry, hot, or cold, or she may need a diaper change. Communicating pain is still the most urgent purpose of crying, though and it is because of this need that the UK researchers think babies practice in the womb.

Dr Reissland said:

"It is vital for infants to be able to show pain as soon as they are born so that they can communicate any distress or pain they might feel to their carers."

She also, surprisingly (to me, anyway!) added that it's not clear whether a fetus can feel pain. It would be understandable if she questioned how soon a fetus can start feeling pain, but the "if" part of the statement baffles me, to be frank. If a preemie born at 24 weeks can feel pain, why wouldn't a fetus of the same gestational age be able to? Is labor and birth the magic process that somehow flicks the pain switch? There is, obviously, still a lot to learn about fetuses. This research does show that a fetus' reactions grow ever more complex, so who knows? Perhaps they really don't feel pain. (It's hard to imagine how this could reliably be tested without doing something really unethical though, isn't it?)

Language development in the womb

Meanwhile, another recent study suggests that babies do more that practicing crying in the womb. French researchers say that fetuses probably develop lots of language skills, including discriminating between syllables and distinguishing male and female voices. It was already clear that babies can indeed hear noises from around 23 weeks gestation. This is when the ears and auditory part of the brain are developed to a point that allows this.

This study suggests that babies have abilities beyond just hearing muffled noises though, and they studied this using brain scans from babies born 12 weeks prematurely. One of the scientists said: "Our results demonstrate that the human brain, at the very onset of the establishment of a cortical circuit for auditory perception, already discriminates subtle differences in speech syllables." However, they do point out that their findings do "not challenge the fact that experience is also crucial for their fine tuning and for learning the specific properties of the native language".

It's possible, the team said, that premature birth itself somehow triggers rapid development in this area. They do not believe that to be the case, though, because it has already been established that newborns recognize their mother's voice from the womb. Both these studies show human development in new and truly amazing ways. While pregnant mothers are munching away on their pickle pancakes and battling heartburn and pregnancy insomnia, their babies may be doing a whole lot more than putting on weight after all their internal organs developed. The findings bring a whole new perspective to the nature vs nurture debate, don't they?

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