Your unborn child is growing physically, mentally and physiologically, with all the five senses developing during those months in the utero. You may liken the womb interior to a dark cave of quiet water, and yet wonder how the five senses of a real individual develop acutely from the embryo stage (size of a tadpole). While still in the womb the unborn baby with all its organs in place will breathe, move, swallow amniotic fluid, react to stimuli and prepare itself for life outside the womb. The learning and conditioning that happens in the nine months are crucial.
Understand that the learning potential of a baby begins in the womb. A lot of emphasis is given to stimulating a newborn when instead it should start much sooner.
Your baby's sense of TOUCH:
An embryo develops its first sense of touch just before the eight week. Like adults, the first parts of baby's body to experience sensitivity starts in the cheek and then quickly extends to the genital area at 10 weeks, palms at 11 weeks, and soles of the feet at 12 weeks. The abdomen and buttocks acquire sensitivity around the 17th week. Your baby may experiment with this newfound sense of touch by stroking his or her face or sucking on a thumb, as well as feeling other body parts and seeing how they move. In the last trimester, when space becomes an issue, your baby's body presses against the wall. Gentle patting and stroking alerts your baby to your touch and baby may respond by calming down or kicking and nudging. Braxton hicks typically occurs at a more regular pace in the last three months and are thought to stimulate the developing senses as well as tone the uterine muscles.
Your baby's sense of TASTE:
A fetus will have developed taste buds resembling that of an adult's by weeks 12-15. Amazingly, the amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus can smell strongly of strong tastes from a mother's diet such as curries, garlic, coffee etc. Studies show fetus preference for sweet tastes over bitter and sour ones, evidenced by the amount swallowing that takes place when exposed to these tastes. During the last trimester, the fetus is swallowing up to a liter a day of amniotic fluid, which may serve to get the baby accustomed to breast milk. By 6 months taste buds would have developed and by birth, babies have a strong sense of taste. Newborns can discriminate between tastes and have shown definite taste preferences. Even preemies as young as 33 weeks suck harder on a sweetened nipple than on a plain rubber one.
Your baby's sense of SMELL:
A fetus's nose develops between 11 and 15 weeks. Previously scientists were of the view that fetuses didn’t have any sense of smell, since it was assumed that smelling depended on air and breathing. Lately new findings suggest amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus passes through the baby's oral and nasal cavities, triggering these senses. Studies have shown that newborns are drawn to the odor of breast milk, although they have no previous experience with it. Our sense of smell is strongest at birth! Researchers think this may come from cues they have learned in prenatal life.
At 32 weeks of gestation - two months before a baby is considered a term baby - a fetus behavior is already very much like a newborn.
Your baby's sense of HEARING:
Sound will be your baby's major source of stimulation, and after the sixth month sound becomes a baby's major information channel. By the end of the second trimester, your unborn baby can hear. The unborn child is able to pick up myriad sounds such as digestive gurgling, blood whooshing through the vessels that happens in the mother's body as well as her voice. A fetus's ears begin its formation around the 8th week, and structurally they are completely formed around week 24. Around week 18 your baby is able to pick up sounds such as maternal heartbeat and blood movement through the umbilical cord. You may wonder when your unborn child hears your voice - by week 25 your baby is able to hear your voice and your partner's and may even recognize those voices as early as 2 weeks later. Clarity may be an issue because the ears are still covered with vernix. Sounds influences fetal movements and heart rate, and that is why pregnant women feel sudden jerks and kicks when there are loud sounds, including her own raised voice. Fetal heartbeat often slows down when the mother is speaking calmly, demonstrating the soothing effect of the mother's voice.
Your baby's sense of SIGHT:
Vision is the last sense to develop. For about the first 26 weeks the eyelids remain closed for the retinas to fully develop. Around week 26, the eyes open and even begin to blink! Contrary to belief the womb isn't totally dark. As early as week 18, when the eyes are still closed, a baby's retinas can detect a small amount of light filtering through a mother's tissue if she's out in the bright sun. Your baby sees everything inside the womb in shades of black, white and grey. (Color vision is estimated to develop 2 months after birth). By week 33, the pupils of the eye can detect light and constrict and dilate, allowing your baby to see dim shapes. Studies suggest that baby turns away and its heartbeat accelerate when a bright light is shone on the mother's belly at 37 weeks. (Note: Exposing a fetus or premature infant to bright light at the wrong time of development can cause retinal damage.)
By 20 weeks your baby starts to communicate through fetal movements such as kicking. Your unborn baby is learning about your world, your routine and your habits and in the long run this will impact on your baby's development.