Prenatal brain development

Prenatal development occurs inside the mother’s womb; from fertilization to birth.

The formation of neurons begins very early in the embryo. After five weeks of conception, the cells in the developing brain begin dividing rapidly to form neurons. Once formed, the neurons start their journey to the correct location in the brain, and synapses begin forming. Foetal brain development has long lasting effects on your baby’s abilities and personality.

There are a few factors that can have an effect on prenatal development, which include: 

  • Neurons and connections forming in the brain of the baby before it is born. 
  • The third trimester is the best time to stimulate baby’s senses!
  • Mother should stay healthy and happy.

Prenatal sensory experiences

Babies begin to learn about the world they live in while they are in the womb. Their prenatal experiences can shape their expectations about life outside the womb, and prepare them for life after birth. When the babies are in the womb, their brains are still forming nerve connections which are important for learning (James, Spencer & Stepsis, 2002; James, 2010) and memory formation (Hepper, 1996).

You can bond with, and teach your baby about the world he lives in by stimulating his senses during pregnancy. Prenatal sensory experiences help to shape your baby’s brain (Hepper, 2015). You can try some sensory exercises during pregnancy to ensure your baby can have a happy and healthy start to prenatal development.

Smell and taste stimulation:

The sense of smell and taste are developed before birth. By 28 weeks, the olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) system is well-developed, and foetuses have the ability to smell and taste by the third trimester. Smells and tastes are carried by the mother’s amniotic fluid, which foetuses absorb through increased breathing, swallowing and mouthing motions as the pregnancy advances. Foetuses can also learn odors from their pregnant mother’s diet (Schaal, Marlier & Soussignan, 2000). This is shown when newborns prefer the familiar smell of their own amniotic fluid compared to other babies’ amniotic fluid (Schaal, Marlier & Soussignan, 1998).

Newborns have a natural preference for sweet taste; they can tell sweet from non-sweet tastes, and find sweet tastes pleasant, just like adults do (Rosenstein & Oster, 1988). Other taste preferences are acquired from prenatal experiences. During pregnancy, the foetus tastes what the mother eats via the amniotic fluid. Taste preferences are highly malleable. Babies who experience a nutritious, well-balanced diet before birth are likely to be more accepting of a variety of food after birth.

If you would like your baby to love fruits and vegetables when he grows up, you can begin introducing different kinds of fruits and vegetables during pregnancy. By tasting the mother’s diet, your baby begins to learn about the culture they will be born into. It is likely that during the last weeks of pregnancy, your baby can taste strong-flavoured foods such as anise and curries that you eat. For example, if you eat lots of bitter gourd during pregnancy, your baby will probably like the taste of bitter gourd because it will taste familiar.

Babies prefer familiar tastes and smells so you can take this opportunity to give your baby as many healthy taste and smell experiences as possible by eating healthily.

Touch stimulation:

Babies and parents form a wonderful bond during the pregnancy. The foetus can respond to movement stimulation outside the womb from 26 weeks gestation onwards, and their responses reach its peak at about 32 weeks (Kisilevsky, Muir & Low, 1992).

You and your spouse can communicate with your baby during pregnancy by patting, stroking, rubbing your belly, and explaining to your baby what kind of touch it is. You can even multi-task by using the opportunity to rub some moisturizer on your belly to prevent stretch marks.

Touch stimulation is relaxing and reassuring for your baby inside the womb. Babies will often respond to touch stimulation by touching the wall of the uterus, changing their positions, kicking or pushing back. Early touch aids babies’ mental and physical growth.

Pre-term babies’ benefits from massage therapy include:

  • Faster weight gain
  • Lower stress hormones

Music stimulation:

The inner ear of the foetus develops by 24 weeks gestation, and foetus can hear at this stage. When the foetus encounters a new sound played to the mother’s stomach at this stage, the foetus’ heart rate drops briefly as they adjust to the new sound, indicating they can differentiate between different sounds (Field, 1998).

Low frequency sounds cross the mother’s stomach and amniotic fluid better than high frequency sounds. Research shows that early exposure to music is beneficial for your baby’s behavioural states and is carried forward to the newborn period, suggesting that a simple form of learning has occurred.

Classical, jazz and other instrumental music can be relaxing to listen to during pregnancy and throughout the first few years of your baby’s life. You can combine touch and sound stimulation by patting your belly in beat with the music. Just be sure the music is not too loud, because loud sound is not good for the developing ears of your baby.

Read, talk and sing:

Not only can foetuses hear, they can learn! Babies in the womb can recognize patterns of speech and intonation. The mother’s voice will sound the loudest to the foetus. Babies who heard their mother tell a story in the last six weeks of pregnancy recognized the same story as newborns and had a preference for the same, familiar story (DeCasper & Spence, 1986).

Newborns also prefer their mother’s language compared to another language (Moon, Cooper & Fifer, 1993). Feel free to speak and read in the two or more languages your baby will grow up learning so your baby is exposed to his languages before birth. Choose books that utilize rhyming, and feel free to read the same books over and over, because repetition can encourage cognitive development and language skills.

Reading, talking and singing to your baby will enable him to know his parents before birth (Fifer & Moon, 1994). Babies find their parents’ voices pleasant to listen to, and all conversations with the foetus during the last trimester is beneficial for language development. It encourages the cognitive development of your baby, and also bonding with your baby. From six months gestation onwards, choose a relaxing and quiet place to read to your baby, and it can help to reduce stress levels for both you and your baby.

Contributed by:
Dr Setoh Pei Pei
Assistant Professor
Nanyang Technological University, School of Social Sciences


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