During pregnancy, your baby does much more than just grow and develop – she’s practicing vital skills to ensure its survival in the big bad world.
When you’re in the early stages of pregnancy, it’s hard to imagine there is a baby growing inside you. After all, it’s not like you can feel anything, not even a flutter of movement. The only signs of life might be symptoms like pesky morning sickness and extreme tiredness.
So you might be surprised to learn that the little bub growing inside you is not just merely growing and sleeping all day, but is full of movement and life. You see, your baby doesn’t just need to physically grow and develop during its time in utero; her brain and central nervous system also needs to start practicing skills for survival.
Here are five impressive things your unborn baby is doing inside your tummy to prepare for life on the outside.
1. Working out
It’s not like she’s going to the gym and lifting weights, but Kathy Hansen, a sonographer at Ultrasound Care, explains how your little bub is regularly exercising all the different parts of her body to strengthen the muscle, joints and tendons for when she’s born.
“It is like the baby has its own little gym program in there,” Kathy explains. “So everything is exercised, [and] when the baby is born the muscles are strong and can already do things.”
She explains how a foetus is doing lots of things in terms of movement – so much so that Kathy says in the early stages of pregnancy, a foetus exercises and moves around for half an hour and then rests for half an hour. Your baby repeats this cycle for 24 hours a day – no wonder why expectant mums are so tired, with all that work happening inside.
2. Pulling cranky faces
Given that crying and facial expressions are a baby’s main form of communication, it’s thought that little bubs may practice crying and frowning during the later stages of pregnancy. These were the findings of research released earlier this year, but researchers admit it’s still only a hypothesis.
“Definitely by third trimester [foetuses] do this deep frown and they look like they have a very cranky face,” Kathy explains. “And then the next minute the face relaxes and they do this mouth stretching – it’s not really a smile, they’re just stretching their mouth.”
Another explanation for the facial expressions is that it could be part of the brain developing and sending signals via the central nervous system.
During the second trimester, babies inside the womb start to swallow. The reason for this is two-fold: firstly, they need to know how to swallow when they first drink mum’s milk, and their digestive system also needs to know how to function; secondly, and very importantly, the swallowing initiates a process that helps balance amniotic fluid.
“By the end of the pregnancy the foetus swallows up to 500ml a day,” Kathy says. “And then it wees, and the baby wee is actually what makes up a big component of the amniotic fluid. So it’s an essential fluid balance.”
It’s also worth mentioning that foetuses develop tastebuds during the second trimester, and can taste foods their mother eats through the amniotic fluid. Researchers have even indicated that a baby may be more inclined to eat a certain food if they were exposed to it during pregnancy … perhaps this is the time to eat lots of broccoli, beans and pumpkin!
4. Breathing in and out
Breathing is essential to survival, so of course it’s important that a foetus practices its breathing ready for the world.
“The breathing exercises start after the 20-week mark,” Kathy says. “When you watch the foetus on ultrasound you can see the diaphragm contracting.”
She also explains how there is no other reason for your foetus to breathe in amniotic fluid, except to practice her breathing and to strengthen the muscles in the diaphragm and chest.
5. Learning to suck
Another essential skill for survival is knowing how to suck, whether it be from the baby's mother’s nipple or the teat of a bottle.
One of the ways your foetus practices suckling movements is by sucking her thumb and fingers; another is by simply placing her tongue on the roof of her mouth and practicing the movement. Kathy says she can sometimes see a foetus doing this during an ultrasound.
Another movement worth mentioning is the foetus opening and closing her fist. Dr Evelyn Chia, who is an obstetrician gynecologist, explains how from very early on, foetuses start making a fist movement in utero – and sometimes the umbilical cord gets in the way.
“Sometimes the umbilical cord is right in front of them, so sometimes they actually grab hold of [it],” Evelyn explains. “It stops the blood flow to themselves and because oxygen comes through the umbilical cord they cut off their oxygen supply – which causes the hand to relax and them to let go.”
So there you have it: babies do so much more than just grow and develop in utero – it’s almost like a survival boot camp, where they learn all the necessary skills to ensure they’re equipped to survive from the moment they make their grand entrance into this world.
Nicole Thomson-Pride is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter.