Pregnancy is one of the most cherished and magical times in a woman’s life. Our body undergoes miraculous changes to accommodate for the developing fetus. As you feel the powerful kicks of the little fetus inside your womb you might be wondering what kind of child they will become.
Is the fetus energetic and restless? Is it kicking and pushing against your belly? When you see those adorable ultrasound images, what is the fetus doing? Fascinating fetal development research is underway to tackle these questions.
Fetal psychology, the study of fetus behavior, can offer some interesting clues about the personality of your child. If you are ready for a glimpse into the future, then read on.
How is a Child’s Temperament Formed?
It is still a mystery! Scientists do not know the precise mechanisms underlying a child’s temperament. It is believed that biological reactions at the molecular level, innate genetic makeup passed through many generations and the environment (socioeconomic status, a mother’s mood, delivery complications) determine a child’s personality traits.
While in the womb, primitive reflexes such as automatic movements are initiated in the brainstem of the developing fetus and help develop other brain structures. Once the baby emerges into the world, early life experiences build behavioral traits through fetal programming, the ongoing brain pathways that are constructed and deconstructed based on the baby’s needs associated with a particular function. Thus, it is imperative to invest time and resources in your child, particularly from conception until the age of 8, since the brain is at its most malleable state of growing and learning.1
What is the First Sense that the Growing Fetus Develops?
Touch is the very first sense your fetus develops inside the womb, observed as early as 8 weeks of pregnancy! It serves as a scaffold for all other sensory inputs from the outside world. Classified as a part of the somatosensory system, touch receptors form on the lips and nose of the growing fetus, serving as a gateway to connect external stimulation (physical touch) and its perception by the brain (feeling a light brush of the skin).2 Having an ability to sense touch also helps develop the swallowing and coughing reflexes. The sensation of amniotic fluid in the throat teaches the fetus how to swallow, a key to survival in the real world.
Touching a hand to the face, for example, brings comfort to a developing child. This is a habit formed within the womb that helps shape the newly forming brain through the sense of touch. This sensory experience might follow a child throughout childhood, as illustrated in the images above.
An important evolutionary advantage the sense of touch provides is interpersonal socialization. Researchers have observed twins and multiple fetuses interacting with one another inside the womb, as early as the 14th week of pregnancy. Ultrasound imaging of 5 pairs of twins in utero, suggests that social interactions in humans begin before birth. This remarkable discovery clearly demonstrates that our brains are pre-wired for socialization.3
Once the baby emerges from the womb, the feeling of changes in air temperature on the skin, the warmth of the mother as it is placed for skin to skin cuddling (crying reflex) and coughing to clear liquid from the throat (cough reflex) are all integral parts of its success in the world.
Can Fetal Movements in utero Predict a Child’s Temperament?
A connection has been established between in utero fetal activity and the baby’s personality after birth. While the level of consciousness of the developing fetus is still a mystery, neuroscientists believe that the fetal brain is building sensorimotor maps of key brain structures relying on spontaneous movements inside the womb to do so.
Each time the fetus twitches or moves a limb to touch a different part of its body, the brain circuit corresponding to that region is activated. As the fetus matures, these movements will synchronize with sensory information from all of the 5 senses and build the complicated brain networks necessary for more sophisticated actions.4
The timeline of the developing brain depicts the complex interplay of multiple brain structures working simultaneously to create the child, an individual with a unique personality.
Personal Story of an Athletic Fetus
My sweet little girl revealed her strong personality early on from inside the womb. Her kicks were so powerful that one evening it shook our entire bed! I especially recall the night that I decided to play Mozart to her by placing the iPad on my pregnant belly during the 3rd trimester. Mozart blasting and with the dog curled up against my legs, I felt the powerful kick that nearly sent the dog flying off the bed. Until this day I can’t tell whether my girl loved or hated Mozart, but what I can say with confidence is that she is one athletic child. When we placed her as a baby in one side of her crib, she always ended up on the other side by sunrise! Since the moment my girl took her first steps to this day, she is running circles around us like a true athlete!
Every child is a product of the interaction between genes and the environment. The complex interplay between nature and nurture shapes the child’s behavior and temperament. While research studies provide valuable insights into human development, they rely on a small sample size of developing fetuses and use fancy mathematical models to reach conclusions that might not apply to the entire population.
Nevertheless, it is fun to think about in utero fetus personalities. A creative experiment that you can undertake at the comfort of your own home is to journal about unique fetal behaviors that you may observe during pregnancy and compare how well they match your baby’s personality during the first years of life.
What characteristics did your fetus display in the womb?
Were those personality traits consistent with behavior during childhood?
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