SCIENTISTS have discovered foetuses yawn in the womb, which could give an indication of their health.
It was known that unborn babies hiccup, swallow and stretch in the womb, but new research has found they also yawn.
Durham and Lancaster universities carried out 4D scans of 15 healthy foetuses which suggest that yawning is a developmental process that could potentially give doctors another index of how healthy they are.
The study has been published in the prestigious international academic journal PLOS ONE, and it was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
While some researchers have suggested that foetuses yawn, others have disagreed and claim it is simple mouth opening.
But boffins claim the new research clearly distinguished “yawning” from “non-yawn mouth opening” based on the duration of mouth opening. The function and importance of yawning is still unknown.
Lead researcher Dr Nadja Reissland, of Durham University’s Department of Psychology, said: “The results of this study demonstrate that yawning can be observed in healthy foetuses and extends previous work on foetal yawning.
“Our longitudinal study shows that yawning declines with increasing foetal age.
“Unlike us, foetuses do not yawn contagiously, nor do they yawn because they are sleepy. Instead, the frequency of yawning in the womb may be linked to the maturing of the brain early in gestation.
“Given that the frequency of yawning in our sample of healthy foetuses declined from 28 weeks’ to 36 weeks’ gestation, it seems to suggest that yawning and simple mouth opening have this maturational function early in gestation.”
She added that yawning could be related to central nervous system maturation but further research involving mother and foetus would be required to examine this theory.