In the second trimester of pregnancy, a parent may feel their unborn baby kicking, rolling over, and even hiccupping. Now based on ultrasound technologies studies suggest babies can start crying before they’re born.
Although pregnant people can’t feel this movement, research suggests that babies do seem to start practicing for this big birth milestone before they’ve taken their first gulp of air. The suggestion was first made in 2005.
It showed a 33-week foetus making facial expressions that look like crying through an ultrasound profile. After the researchers gave the foetus a vibration and noise stimulation, it opens its jaw wide, tucks in its chin and lets out three big exhales in a row as its chest rises and its head tilts back, ending with a chin quiver. This movement was seen in 10 foetuses (about 6% of the total number of babies scanned).
Whether it is the fetes crying depends on how you define crying. “If you use the definition of ‘a loud inarticulate shout or scream expressing a powerful feeling or emotion,’ then you can say quite definitely that babies don’t cry in the womb,” Nadja Reissland, a developmental psychologist at Durham University in the U.K.
Also, in the fluid-filled amniotic sac, foetuses can’t take in a big breath, fill their lungs and vibrate the air through their vocal cords to start to wail.
These preliminary facial expressions develop around 24 to 35 weeks, and their complexity increases with gestational age. These motions are too subtle to be felt by the pregnant parent. But the foetus seems to be practicing at least the facial movements of crying before birth, preparing it to become functional when they take their first breath and let out that long-awaited wail signalling their arrival. Whether they’re vibrating the vocal cords and trying to make sounds in utero is not possible to know. Even if they did manage to make a sound wave in the fluid, it likely wouldn’t be strong enough to travel through the amniotic fluid and flesh of the mother. Also it is not known if these crying motions are in any way linked to pain or discomfort in the foetus.
Foetuses don’t produce tears, either; crying with tears doesn’t typically begin until around four weeks after birth, once babies’ tear ducts are mature enough to form teardrops.