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What Happens to Us Inside the Womb?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
The miracle of life has had scientists scratching their heads for centuries, but we do have a clear understanding of exactly how every person develops. From a single cell into a fully-grown human, the process is one of the most intricate and amazing facts of our existence. What happens to us inside the womb is in our DNA - but it's impossible for anyone to remember their own, individual experience. For this video, we take a look at what happens during the various stages of pregnancy, and how the human body comes to be.

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What Happens to Us Inside the Womb?

It isn’t something you’ll ever remember - but you were able to experience a range of sensations while still inside the womb. The creation of new life is truly marvellous and spectacular. Throughout just nine short months, we evolve from a tiny tadpole-like creature into a mini-human complete with all the necessary muscles, organs, and perceptual abilities. But what do we actually experience during that transition?

Believe it or not, we start to develop touch receptors at around eight weeks. At this time, our basic physiology is almost in place, and we’re about the size of a kidney bean. Touch receptors first develop in the face, especially the lips and nose, and over the next few month in the genitals, palms, and soles. Our neural pathways are still primitive however, and it’s not clear how much we can really “feel”. We’ll respond to touch, particularly if prodded around the mouth, but this might just be a reflexive motion, thanks to nerve-fibres that carry information to our spinal cords. Most researchers agree that we won’t experience pain for some time, until close to the 30 week mark.

In the meantime, at fifteen weeks, we begin to sense light, even though our eyelids are still fused shut. It may be incredibly dark inside the womb, but light can still filter through. At this stage of development, fetuses may retract from a light source in order to cozy back into the comfort of darkness. However, our sense of sight won’t be fully developed until much later on into the pregnancy. In fact, sight is the last sense to fully develop, and often isn’t perfected until well after birth.

By eighteen weeks, when we’re about the size of a bell pepper, we start discovering our limbs and flexing our arms and legs, a movement that can often be felt by our mothers. A week later and we can hear her exclamations - and grumbles - about all the movement suddenly going on down there. We may have no idea what our parents are saying, but by this point we can definitely hear them. In fact, it’s been shown that fetuses can learn repeated sounds, intonations, and speech patterns while still inside the womb, which is how they’re able to distinguish their parents’ voices upon birth. They may also recognize a particular story if it was read to them while in the womb, and they may even be able to identify specific pieces of music that their mother listened to frequently while pregnant.

And let us tell you, fetuses might well welcome some of those noises because it sounds downright busy inside the womb. Fetuses can hear the sound of their mother’s beating heart, the blood flowing through their veins, and the inner workings and related noises of the digestive system. ALL the related noises. Doctors once thought that the womb was a peaceful and quiet place. However, that’s definitely not the case.

Around week 25, we start to gain a sense of balance while tumbling around inside the womb, rocked by our own movements and the movements of our mothers. Our firmer grasp on direction allows us to successfully right ourselves when toppled over. Shortly afterward, our eyelids open. But the womb is a pretty dark place, and there’s not much to look at. We see little more than darkness and a cloud of amniotic fluid. We’re still mostly navigating by feel.

It’s in third trimester that we really start coming into our own and becoming mini-humans.

By this point, we have a dedicated sleep schedule and we inhale and exhale amniotic fluid, which helps develop our lungs. If we’re born prematurely at this point, we’ll actually be able to breathe on our own with a little help.

We also begin to play. Of course, we don’t have a lot to do inside the womb - there are no stuffed toys, building bricks, or iPads. But we do make do with what we have. Some of our favorite pastimes include sucking on our hands and fingers; twirling around the umbilical cord like the string on a hoodie; and walking around the uterine wall. It’s almost as if we can’t wait to get out of the hot, noisy, and dark cave that is the womb.

We can also SMELL the womb around us. The amniotic fluid carries with it various scents, particularly those of strong spices such as garlic and cumin. It’s also imbued with the natural smell of our mother, which is another reason babies immediately recognize their mothers upon birth. That’s right: while you were inside her womb, you were smelling your mom and all the foods she ate.

Of course, with smell comes taste. Fetuses are able to distinguish a wide range of flavours. They can tell when something is bitter, sour, or sweet, and studies have shown that premature babies as young as 35 weeks will prefer an artificial, sweetened nipple to a regular, unflavoured one. Great! Even at 35 weeks, kids like candy more than real foods.

What we taste in the uterus can directly affect what we like to eat after we’re born. A study led by bio-psychologist Julie Mennella of Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that babies have a higher tolerance for foods that they were exposed to while still in the womb. For example, babies whose mothers drank carrot juice during their pregnancy were more accepting of the taste at weaning than babies whose mothers didn’t drink it. Similarly, babies whose mothers avoided garlic while pregnant reacted more strongly upon smelling it after birth. Our food preferences seem to some extent to be dependant on what our moms ate while we were kicking around in the womb.

One of the final milestones in our development is our ability at 31 weeks to turn our heads from side to side and observe our surroundings. Over the next few weeks, nature will furnish us with some finishing touches, like making us fatter and further developing our organs. Around nine months, we’re fully ready for birth, and are finally kicked out of our old familiar digs and into the bright, loud, and scary outside world. Luckily, we’re able to recognize our mothers by smell and sound, providing a soothing balm in this otherwise mystifying new land.

Our life inside the womb is rich with new sensations, but while newborn babies do seem to have some recollection of the good old days, they’re soon lost in the hurly-burly of life on the outside. In fact, some researchers believe we continually replace many old memories with new ones until about age 10. It’s fascinating to know that we may have once have hazily remembered our time in the womb, but that these memories were quickly replaced and forgotten amongst the turbulent and exploratory times of toddler-hood. Isn’t life wonderful?

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