There’s been plenty of evidence attesting to the smarts of babies still in-utero — including that they can already recognize familiar voices. That’s why pregnant women and dads-to-be will often find themselves talking to the bump. But new research has revealed babies could also recognize human faces while still in the womb.
The study, by a team from Lancaster University in the UK, discovered that unborn babies turned their heads towards shapes that resemble faces. But when the same infants were shown a random shape, they ignored it.
The findings suggest that the instinct to recognize facial features develops before a baby has even seen its first face.
Researchers also believe the results indicate that a baby’s senses are already well developed before it is born, and suggest parents begin interacting with their baby while he or she is still in the womb.
“The fetus in the third trimester actively seeks out information,” explains Professor Vincent Reid, a psychologist at Lancaster University who led the research. “In our study they had to move their head to keep looking at the face-like stimulus when we moved it away from them. So they are active participants in finding information from the environment. What this means is that other ways of interacting with the fetus can be considered.”
For example, he adds, “The fetus in the third trimester can hear very well. I would encourage expecting parents to read books out loud to each other. This can help with bonding and could be beneficial.”
Using a light source to project a pattern of three dots in the formation of eyes and a mouth through the uterine wall, the research team found that even at 34 weeks, the fetus will turn to acknowledge the shape.
The same was not recorded when the light dots were assembled in a triangle shape, suggesting that it isn’t the light, but the shape that they were responding to.
“There was the possibility that the fetus would find any shape interesting due to the novelty of the stimulus,” explains Reid. “If this was the case, we would get no difference in how they responded to the upright and upside down versions of the stimuli. But it turned out that they responded in a way that was very similar to infants.”
The research team has a word of warning for parents-to-be wanting to test the theory at home by shining lights onto a pregnant woman’s abdomen: The team avoided bright lights and instead used gentle lights in a dark room, they noted.
According to Reid, the study suggests that third-trimester fetuses actively watch and respond to visual stimuli. The research also opens the door for scientists to further study fetal vision and behavior.
“The majority of research with infants is actually about their visual preferences and about the way they see the world. Up until now, we’ve not been able to do that with fetuses,” he explains. “Using these techniques, we have the possibility to explore almost all aspects of fetal vision for the first time.”
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