In fact, babies in utero experience a wide range of sensory input at a much earlier stage of development than once believed. That’s the result of a study from Heidelberg psychotherapist Ludwig Janus, reported February 9 on kath.net, the on-line German-language Catholic newspaper.
Dr. Janus’ research showed that the unborn child can already feel emotions, such as anger and joy. According to him, there is a close connection between mother and child, through which the developing fetus “is confronted with a whole range of feelings and sympathises with them.” So the unborn baby could be angry in the womb or have fear, but also feel joy and satisfaction.
By eight weeks, the fetus has developed a sense of touch. Ultrasound images show the fetus, for example, reaching to touch a strip along the umbilical cord to reach the uterine wall and grope its surroundings.
The sense of taste can be tested as early as thirteen weeks. Janus reported that just as newborn infants like the taste of sweet fruit water, so does the developing fetus prefer sweeter tastes; and U.S. researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center (Philadelphia) demonstrated that the fetus will swallow more of the amniotic fluid if it is sweet, rather than bitter.
At seventeen weeks, the developing child has a well-developed sense of hearing—experiencing first the mother’s heartbeat, the sound of her blood and the rumblings of the stomach and intestines, later the maternal voice, and then other voices, music and everyday sounds. When scientists played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” five times per week at this stage of development, then measured brain waves after birth, the newborn group who had heard the song in utero responded positively to the tune. Ludwig Janus, quoted in a Saxon newspaper, said, “We are experiencing in the womb, sentient beings and capable of receiving sensory stimuli from our environment and process.”
The sense of sight is complicated. Nuremberg perinatal expert Dr. Franz Kainer reported that the eyes are fully formed by the sixteenth week, but it takes until the 25th week before they are fully operational. At that stage, they are open and moving freely during periods of wakefulness, and closed for sleep. Visual acuity has not yet been fully tested, though, in the darkened environment of the womb.
The sense of smell does not come into play in the womb, because it can’t operate in the liquid environment. However, soon after birth the sense of smell assumes great importance, as it will help the baby to recognize the mother and to find the way to her nipples.