A study from University College London examined how movements like kicking in the womb develop preborn babies’ brains. Mothers can feel their preborn babies kick in the womb starting between 16 and 25 weeks gestation (though spontaneous movements begin at seven weeks), and scientists are only now beginning to understand the reasons for this forceful movement that keeps many pregnant mothers awake at night.
It turns out all this movement is helping preborn babies to develop their brains before birth. As Live Science reports, “These kicks, known as fetal movements, enable a baby to construct a basic brain network so that it can understand what part of the body is moving and how it is being touched, the researchers found.”
The study, published in Scientific Reports, was co-led by doctoral student Kimberley Whitehead and senior researcher Lorenzo Fabrizi. The researchers wanted to understand how a baby’s movements during REM sleep develop their brain before birth.
Because researchers cannot study the brain waves of babies still in the womb, they found a creative way to measure changes in brain activity as babies approach birth. Whitehead and Fabrizi partnered with University College London to study 19 newborns, including several who were born prematurely. Utilizing a non-invasive method of measuring the newborns’ brain waves, the research team analyzed what happened when the babies kicked during REM sleep.
What they found is that in premature babies, the movement appeared to result in the creation of brain networks, forming a mental map of the body. The size of the brainwaves was larger in more premature babies than in babies who were full-term. These findings led researchers to believe that this mental map creation takes place during prenatal development, and stops around the time babies are born.
Live Science summarizes the findings, stating, “It is as if the movements in the womb are preparing the baby for life on the outside, providing the neural scaffolding upon which the brain will build layers of complexity with all the new kinds of sensory input in the world, the researchers suggested.”
Because of this mental map created in the womb, babies are born with an awareness of their body that assists them in vital activities, like breastfeeding. The research also has implications for neonatal care for newborns, as medical teams can work to better recreate the womb environment to assist babies in this brain-building activity that usually occurs before birth.
As we learn more about fetal development, there is no doubt that babies are learning and developing skills well before they are born.