Babies in the Womb Anticipate Touch: Cognitive Leap Around 36 Weeks

Life inside the womb teaches babies how to communicate and to survive outside of the womb. Photo by Karen Lefebvre.

Life inside the womb teaches babies how to communicate and to survive outside of the womb. Photo by Karen Lefebvre used with permission, all rights reserved.

Premature Babies and Development

How do these findings effect those babies that are born prematurely? Babies born early may have trouble with sucking, we asked Dr. Ressland whether she thinks her research supports this issue, and she responded:

This is a very serious question. By examining what healthy foetuses can do (specifically at what stage in development) we can be prepared for the immature behaviours of premature babies. The current work concerns just mouth opening (hence not the sucking action). However, a baby needs to accept bottle or breast by opening the mouth. Premature babies have trouble in coordinating sucking, breathing and swallowing… this has been studied extensively. Nobody to my knowledge has looked at what happens in the first step of the feeding engagement which is to open the mouth.”

Preparing Baby For Life Outside The Womb

It’s interesting to learn that babies are aware of movement, and anticipate the touch of their own hands – but how does this behavior prepare an infant for life outside of her mother’s womb? Dr. Ressland tells us:

“Anticipating actions is fundamental to social engagement. But the preparation in the uterus also helps in terms of getting to know their own body. For example, new-born babies might suck their thumb to calm themselves and foetuses learn about themselves by self-touch: how does it feel; how do I get to taste my thumb? Not that they think these questions but observing a foetus we (mother and father) do interpret behaviours in this way and hence engage with the foetus . Foetuses learn prenatally about their world and this includes tastes and smells as well as sounds which they will encounter when they are born. Our study just adds a piece to the puzzle showing how the foetus explores their own bodies and develops from reacting to their touch to anticipating the touch which is of course much more cognitively demanding.”

Studying Babies in the Womb

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What’s next for these researchers? Expanding the research, and studying the effects of viewing the baby in the womb on the behavior of mom and dad are both very good ideas. Dr. Ressland says:

“This research needs to be expanded to bigger groups including compromised foetuses. Additionally, I would love to do a study showing the effects of seeing the foetus regularly in the 2nd to 3rd trimester of pregnancy on health behaviours. Do fathers (who often feel left out because they do not carry the foetus) feel more attached? Do they support the mothers more during her pregnancy? Also do mothers change their health behaviours when seeing the foetus grow in the last 3 months of pregnancy? For example will smoking mothers reduce the number of cigarettes smoked when they see their foetus every 4 weeks?”


These findings support how healthy development inside the womb help babies to use vital skills like sucking to survive outside the womb, Dr. Ressland’s research in unborn babies have also found that babies practice facial expressions inside the womb to use to communicate during life outside the womb. Doctors can even use the baby’s yawns (or lack thereof) to determine his health and development in the womb. Understanding the ways in which babies in the womb behave may help us understand how to better help infants transition to life outside the womb.


Reissland, N. and Francis, B. and Aydin, E. and Mason, J. and Schaal, B.v. The development of anticipation in the fetus : a longitudinal account of human fetal mouth movements in reaction to and anticipation of touch. (2013). Developmental psychobiology. Accessed October 8, 2013.

© Copyright 2013 Janelle Vaesa, MPH: Health, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Pregnancy

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