Unborn Baby’s Mental Map

I recently read an article that I found interesting about babies in the womb creating a mental map of their body. Christopher Wanjek from Live Science submitted the article, giving more information.

It is indeed exciting the first time your baby begins to move within the womb.  Now it is thought the baby is not just moving or kicking, but with each movement he/she may be mapping out the brain and building an information superhighway.

These fetal movements enable a baby to construct a basic brain network that can help it to understand what part of the body is moving and how it’s being touched.  This mapping lasts only until just before birth, then these movements no longer have the same effect on the brain. The movements prepare the baby for life on the outside and provide the neural scaffolding for which the brain will build layers of complexity with the new kinds of sensory input in the world.

The touch is fundamental and useful immediately from birth for skills like breastfeeding, according to Kimberley Whitehead, a doctoral student at University College London (UCL) who co-led the study. Their findings may have implications for neonatal clinical care. This could include how to wrap a premature baby so that it can maintain the sense of being in the womb and further develop this basic brain network.  The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Spontaneous movements and feedback seen after birth are necessary for proper brain mapping in animals such as rats, but baby rats don’t open their eyes until they are about 13 days old. Study co-lead Lorenzo Fabrizi, a senior research fellow at UCL wonders if humans have the same early brain mapping before birth, but they can’t study the brain waves of babies still in the womb.

Fabrizi’s lab devised a study with University College London Hospital to examine a variety of newborn humans, including those premature. About 19 newborns were in the study between 31 and 42 weeks in corrected gestational age. This age took into account their age as if still in the womb. Noninvasive electroencephalography (EEG) measured brainwaves as the infants slept, focusing on the times the newborns kicked during rapid eye movement sleep. Evidence was found for this building of brain networks, especially among the prematurely born babies.

Their most recent data suggests other aspects of touch do develop in the first several weeks after birth, such as combining information from the left and right side of the body.  It suggests that keeping a premature newborn swaddled or nested in a cot may be beneficial to allow the baby to feel a womb-like surface when he or she moves. Their results support the notion that sleep should be protected in newborns in hospitals with minimal disturbance for necessary medical procedures. Remember, they are building their beautiful brains!

Dr Fredda Branyon