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Stress experienced by a woman during pregnancy may affect her unborn baby as early as 17 weeks after conception, with potentially harmful effects on brain and development, according to new research. The study is the first to show that unborn babies are exposed to their mother's stress hormones at such an early stage in pregnancy. The findings, published in the journal Clinical Endocrinology, come after separate research on animals showed that high levels of stress in a mother during pregnancy could affect brain function and behaviour in her offspring, and other evidence suggesting that maternal stress in humans can affect the developing child, including lowering its IQ.
However, the way this happens and the implications for the unborn child, both before and after birth, are still not fully understood and further research is needed, the latest study's authors said. They said they did not wish to "unduly worry pregnant women", but highlighted the need to lead a "healthy, balanced lifestyle" to avoid general stress. The baby charity Tommy's called on family, friends and employers of pregnant women to provide support and reassurance to help them reduce stress.
The findings, the latest to focus on the impact of the environment in the womb on later development, come days after the government changed its advice to pregnant women and those trying to conceive, warning them to abstain from drinking alcohol. Previous guidelines had said they could drink up to two small glasses of wine a week.
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The change in advice, which government health advisers said was made to avoid confusion, rather than in response to new medical evidence, prompted claims from some critics that pregnant women are increasingly becoming targets in an obsessively anti-risk culture. Hopson, published September 1, - last reviewed on June 9, Behaviorally speaking, there's little difference between a newborn baby and aweek-old fetus. A new wave of research suggests that the fetus can feel, dream, even enjoy The Cat in the Hat. The abortion debate may never be the same.
The scene never fails to give goose bumps: the baby, just seconds old and still dewy from the womb, is lifted into the arms of its exhausted but blissful parents. They gaze adoringly as their new child stretches and squirms, scrunches its mouth and opens its eyes.
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To anyone watching this tender vignette, the message is unmistakable. Birth is the beginning of it all, ground zero, the moment from which the clock starts ticking. Not so, declares Janet DiPietro. Birth may be a grand occasion, says the Johns Hopkins University psychologist, but "it is a trivial event in development.
Nothing neurologically interesting happens. Armed with highly sensitive and sophisticated monitoring gear, DiPietro and other researchers today are discovering that the real action starts weeks earlier. At 32 weeks of gestation --two months before a baby is considered fully prepared for the world, or "at term" --a fetus is behaving almost exactly as a newborn. And it continues to do so for the next 12 weeks. As if overturning the common conception of infancy weren't enough, scientists are creating a startling new picture of intelligent life in the womb.
Among the revelations:.
Fetal Sense of Touch: What Your Baby Can Feel in Utero
By the end of the second trimester it can hear. Sensory stimulation of the fetus can in fact lead to bizarre patterns of adaptation later on. The roots of human behavior, researchers now know, begin to develop early--just weeks after conception, in fact. Well before a woman typically knows she is pregnant, her embryo's brain has already begun to bulge. By five weeks, the organ that looks like a lumpy inchworm has already embarked on the most spectacular feat of human development: the creation of the deeply creased and convoluted cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that will eventually allow the growing person to move, think, speak, plan, and create in a human way.
At nine weeks, the embryo's ballooning brain allows it to bend its body, hiccup, and react to loud sounds. At week ten, it moves its arms, "breathes" amniotic fluid in and out, opens its jaw, and stretches. Before the first trimester is over, it yawns, sucks, and swallows as well as feels and smells. By the end of the second trimester, it can hear; toward the end of pregnancy, it can see. Scientists who follow the fetus's daily life find that it spends most of its time not exercising these new abilities but sleeping.
Some of these hours are spent in deep sleep, some in REM sleep, and some in an indeterminate state, a product of the fetus's immature brain that is different from sleep in a baby, child, or adult. During REM sleep, the fetus's eyes move back and forth just as an adult's eyes do, and many researchers believe that it is dreaming.
DiPietro speculates that fetuses dream about what they know--the sensations they feel in the womb.
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Between its frequent naps, the fetus seems to have "something like an awake alert period," according to developmental psychologist William Filer, who with his Columbia University colleagues is monitoring these sleep and wakefulness cycles in order to identify patterns of normal and abnormal brain development, including potential predictors of sudden infant death syndrome. Says Filer, "We are, in effect, asking the fetus: 'Are you paying attention? Is your nervous system behaving in the appropriate way? Awake or asleep, the human fetus moves 50 times or more each hour, flexing and extending its body, moving its head, face, and limbs and exploring its warm wet compartment by touch.
Touch: the first sense to develop
Heidelise Als, a developmental psychologist at Harvard Medical School, is fascinated by the amount of tactile stimulation a fetus gives itself. Als believes there is a mismatch between the environment given to preemies in hospitals and the environment they would have had in the womb. She has been working for years to change the care given to preemies so that they can curl up, bring their knees together, and touch things with their hands as they would have for weeks in the womb.
Along with such common movements, DiPietro has also noted some odder fetal activities, including "licking the uterine wall and literally walking around the womb by pushing off with its feet. After the initial pregnancy, a woman's uterus is bigger and the umbilical cord longer, allowing more freedom of movement.
Social and emotional development in babies
Fetuses react sharply to their mother's actions. We've wondered whether this is why people grow up liking roller coasters. Why people grow up liking hot chilies or spicy curries may also have something to do with the fetal environment. By 13 to 15 weeks a fetus' taste buds already look like a mature adult's, and doctors know that the amniotic fluid that surrounds it can smell strongly of curry, cumin, garlic, onion and other essences from a mother's diet. Whether fetuses can taste these flavors isn't yet known, but scientists have found that a week-old preemie will suck harder on a sweetened nipple than on a plain rubber one.
She thinks the fluid may act as a "flavor bridge" to breast milk, which also carries food flavors from the mother's diet.