The Importance of Fetal BehaviorThe fetus is continually active in and reactive to its environment. But why does the fetus move, sense its environment, learn? It is possible that the behavior and experiences of the fetus have no impact on its development and are mere byproducts of the maturation process. However, research suggests the behaviour of the fetus is important for its development both before and after birth (Hepper, 1996), ensuring its survival and beginning its integration into the social world. Adapting to the womb - The fetal environment is very different from that experienced after birth. In order to survive in this environment the fetus may exhibit behaviors suited to this environment – ontogenetic adaptations (Oppenheim, 1984). To date, there has been little research examining this aspect of the fetus’s behaviour. It may be that some of the reflexes exhibited by the newborn are required by the fetus to aid its movement during birth. Practice makes perfect - One key role for prenatal activity is to practise behaviours that are essential for survival after birth; for example, fetal breathing movements. These begin at 9–10 weeks and occur around 30 per cent of the time at 30 weeks (Patrick et al., 1980). Although there is no air in the womb these breathing movements help the neural pathways responsible for breathing to mature, ensuring a fully operational system when required at the moment of birth. Forming joints and muscles - The movements of the fetus are essential for the formation of the joints and muscle tone (Drachman & Sokoloff, 1966). Initially, the joints develop with rough surfaces; but as the fetus moves, the joints are reshaped and develop their smooth surfaces to enable complete mobility. Absence of movement in joints has been linked to malformation, (e.g. club foot). Getting ready for the breast - Prenatal olfactory learning may facilitate the establishment of breast-feeding. Although alternatives exist to breastfeeding today, in the evolution of the mother/fetus/newborn biological system alternatives to breast-feeding were not available. If the individual was to survive its only source of nourishment in the immediate postnatal period was breast milk. The same processes that flavor the mother’s breast milk also flavour the amniotic fluid, so the fetus may learn about the flavor of breast milk from swallowing amniotic fluid. Mothers whose diet changes across the birth period have much more difficulty in establishing breast-feeding than mothers whose diet remains the same. Attachment - The ability of the fetus to recognize its mother’s voice and smell may be important for the processes of attachment and exploration. While the newborn has a rudimentary sensory system able to process auditory and chemosensory information, and to a lesser extent visual information, it knows nothing about its environment. Imagine yourself with sensory systems able to process information but in which nothing is familiar – disorientation indeed. It would make good sense for the newborn to be able to recognise one familiar object in this sensory milieu, and even better sense if this object is its mother and primary caregiver. Recognition by sound and smell are also advantageous as they operate remotely; that is, the mother may be out of visual contact with her baby but the baby can hear and smell her over some distance, providing a familiar recognizable cue in the newborn’s environment. Language - Experience with speech sounds in the womb may begin the process of language acquisition (Moon & Fifer, 2000). Newborns recognize and prefer their mother’s language, and are able to discriminate this from an unfamiliar language (Moon et al., 1993). Recordings from the womb reveal that speech sounds clearly emerge from the background noise (Querleu et al., 1988). This exposure may be the beginning of language acquisition. Boosting brain cells - At a more general level, experience during the prenatal period may be important, or even essential, for normal development, especially of the brain. It is well established that the nervous system develops in response to the experiences it receives and from activity generated within the system (Lagercrantz & Ringstedt, 2001). The prenatal period marks the most rapid period of development of our brain. At its peak some 250,000 brain cells are being produced every minute. The normal prenatal environment (of changing sensory information, fetal activity and reactivity) may provide necessary and essential stimulation for the formation of the CNS and subsequently its function.
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Dr Unnati Chavda
(Promoting pregnancy wellness)