Foetal kicks may help babies understand their bodies

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When unborn babies kick in the womb, they may be developing awareness of their bodies, British researchers say.

"Spontaneous movement and consequent feedback from the environment during the early developmental period are known to be necessary for proper brain mapping in animals such as rats. Here we showed that this may be true in humans, too," said study author Lorenzo Fabrizi of University College London.

His team measured the brain waves of 19 newborns during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The babies were an average of two days old, and some were premature. The researchers found a link between movement and brain activity.

For example, movement of a newborn's right hand causes immediate activity in the left part of the brain that processes touch for the right hand. The size of these "fast brain waves" is largest in premature babies, who would normally still be in the womb, the researchers said.

Sensory input

The fast brain waves associated with movement end by the time a baby is a few weeks old, the researchers added.

These findings suggest that foetal movement in the third trimester of pregnancy helps to develop areas of the brain that process sensory input. This is how a baby develops a sense of its own body, according to the study authors.

The research could improve care for premature infants, Fabrizi and his colleagues said in a university news release.

Safe environment

"We think the findings have implications for providing the optimal hospital environment for infants born early, so that they receive appropriate sensory input," said study co-author Kimberley Whitehead. She's in the university's department of neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology.

For example, it's already routine for infants to be "nested" in their bassinets. This allows them to "feel" a surface when they kick their limbs, as if they were still inside the womb, Whitehead noted.

"As the movements we observed occur during sleep, our results support other studies which indicate that sleep should be protected in newborns, for example by minimising the disturbance associated with necessary medical procedures," Whitehead said.

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Image credit: iStock

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