Babies learn how to anticipate touch while in the womb and how they touch their face and head can be an indicator of how well they are developing physically and psychologically before they are born.
For the first time, psychologists discovered that foetuses were able to predict, rather than react to, their own hand movements towards their mouths as they entered the later stages of gestation compared to earlier in a pregnancy.
The researchers believe their findings could improve understanding about babies, especially those born prematurely, their readiness to interact socially and their ability to calm themselves by sucking on their thumb or fingers.
They also said the results could also be a potential indicator of how prepared babies are for feeding.
Scientists believe anticipation is a key marker in a healthy baby’s development and it could be a sign of illness if babies don’t do it by certain points of the pregnancy.
Only when the ability to anticipate touch and move with intention – for example opening the mouth to suck – has developed is a baby ready to leave the safety of the womb, they added.
Psychologist Dr Nadja Reissland explained: ‘Increased touching of the lower part of the face and mouth in foetuses could be an indicator of brain development necessary for healthy development, including preparedness for social interaction, self-soothing and feeding.’
The discovery comes after a previous study found babies make faces in the womb, potentially as practice before coming in to the world.
Dr Reissland and a team of researchers led by Durham University used ’4D’ ultrasound scans – 3D scans that can be seen in real time – to image eight girls and seven boys once a month between the 24th and 36th week of pregnancy.