Research shows unborn babies practice facial expressions in the womb

4-d scan of 32 week old fetus showing a 'pain' face.
4-d scan of 32 week old fetus showing a 'pain' face.
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UNBORN babies practise facial expressions of pain in the womb, say researchers.

A study published today by Durham University suggests that a foetus’s ability to show a facial expression of pain is a developmental process, which could potentially give doctors another way of assessing its health.

Dr Nadja Reissland

Dr Nadja Reissland

The study showed facial expressions of how healthy foetuses develop and become more complex during pregnancy.

Special 4D scans revealed they develop from making very simple one-dimensional expressions at 24 weeks, such as moving their lips to form a smile, to complex multi-dimensional expressions, which can be recognised as pain expressions, 36 weeks into pregnancy.

Researchers believe this is an adaptive process which enables the unborn baby to prepare themselves for life after birth when they have to communicate, for example if they feel hungry or uncomfortable, by making grimaces or crying.

Lead researcher Dr Nadja Reissland, of Durham’s Department of Psychology, said: “It is vital for infants to be able to show pain as soon as they are born, so that they can communicate any distress or pain they might feel to their carers.

“And our results show that healthy foetuses learn to combine the necessary facial movements before they are born.

“This suggests that we can determine the normal development of facial movements and potentially identify abnormal development too.

“This could then provide a further medical indication of the health of the unborn baby.

“It is not yet clear whether foetuses can actually feel pain, nor do we know whether facial expressions relate to how they feel.

“Our research indicates that the expression of foetal facial movements is a developmental process which seems to be related to brain maturation rather than being linked to feelings.”