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PARENTING
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Parenting
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The Healthy Family

Science Sheds Light
On Unborn Human Life

by
John F. Cogan

The Unborn Child Develops So Rapidly!
In the following few paragraphs I’ve highlighted some of the ways the child’s body develops, with an emphasis on the early stages of pregnancy – often on a day-by-day basis. The developments I’ve chosen are only a few of the hundreds of other things that are happening early in pregnancy. I selected them because they captured my imagination. Readers who browse through the appendices will find information about other developments they may find interesting.

But before we begin, a comment might be in order about the moment when it all gets started. A new human being is conceived when a sperm fertilizes an egg. The sperm has 23 chromosomes and so does the egg. But the fertilized egg has 46, half from each parent, and is genetically unique. These 46 chromosomes, which are fixed at conception, establish the child’s sex and are a blueprint for how it will develop, both during pregnancy and after birth.

Although the child begins developing immediately after conception, the most visible advances occur during the third to eighth weeks. In fact, key organs are already developing in the third week – a time when many women are just beginning to wonder if they are pregnant.
Blood vessels start to form very early, about 13-18 days after fertilization. Then, on about the 20th day – nearly the end of the third week - the foundation of the brain, the spinal cord, and the entire nervous system is established.

The eyes begin to develop early in the fourth week after conception. During this extremely critical week the esophagus, gallbladder, liver, lungs, pancreas, pharynx, stomach, and trachea also begin to form. And, toward the end of the week, the nose, tongue, and spleen also start to develop.

The heart begins to beat on about the 22nd day after conception, circulating blood throughout the child. The arms begin to form on about day 26, followed by the beginnings of the legs on day 28, the same day that the mouth opens for the first time.

Also on the 28th day, building blocks are present for 40 pairs of muscles that will run from the base of the skull to the bottom of the spinal column.

The kidneys begin to develop early in the fifth week after conception. The jaws and ears are also forming during this week and the face starts to look human.

The intestines are defined at the end of the first month, and the larynx is developing on about the 32nd day, the same time that spinal nerves begin to sprout and the palate is forming.

The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that controls the intellect and motor activity, begins to differentiate on the 33rd day after conception, the same day that the forearms and shoulders can be distinguished. The elbows are developing on the 34th day, as are both hand and foot plates.

The olfactory nerve, which is related to the sense of smell, is present in the brain on the 35th day after conception, the day when the ribs begin to form and lengthen.

Both the upper and lower lips are forming early in the sixth week after conception. Also during the sixth week the eye is obvious, reflecting the fact that retinal pigment is already present. The beginnings of the eyelids and the fingers are also forming during the sixth week, the testes become identifiable at this time and some salivary glands appear. By the sixth to seventh weeks after conception, the heart is contracting forty to eighty times each minute.

The aorta is developing on the 36th day after conception, and all the muscle blocks have appeared. The feet and the thighs become distinct on the 37th day. Finger rays are visible on the 38th day, when the nose is also formed. The urinary bladder is developing on the 39th day, and on the 40th day, the forehead, nostrils, diaphragm and teeth are beginning to appear.

The penis begins to develop on about the 42nd day after conception, the same day that the beginnings of the toes are evident.

Both the eyes and ears are developing rapidly during the seventh week after conception. At this time, the thumbs, neck, heels of the feet and all of the fingers are also present.

Nipples and the first hair follicles appear on the 44th day after conception. On the 46th day, microscopic examination can identify the child’s sex because the ovaries and testes have differentiated.

The cheeks are visible on about the 47th day, when the knees are also developing. The vagina forms during the 36th to the 49th days, while the wrist is developing on about day 48. During the 49th to 51st days after conception, the arms are longer and bent at the elbows.

Taste buds begin to form during the eighth week after conception. All parts of the limbs are apparent at this time. In addition, the fingers and toes have lengthened and are completely separated.

On the 50th day after conception the eyes are heavily pigmented and the nose looks stubby. The ankles are present on the 54th day and the major blood vessels of the body take on their final scheme.

On the 56th day, the fingers of both hands are usually found close to the nose, the muscles of the stomach, esophagus, and intestines begin to proliferate, and the face appears quite human. All parts of the arms and legs are well developed, including the toes. The primary teeth are at the cap stage.

By the end of the eighth week the overwhelming majority (several thousand) of the body’s organs, structures and systems have already begun to develop. Few, if any, new structures begin to form after this time. During the remainder of the pregnancy, development consists mainly of growth and maturation of the parts of the body that are already present.

Key changes that do occur past the eighth week, however, include the appearance of hair follicles on the eyebrows, eyelids, upper lip and chin at the end of the second month. In addition, fingernails and toenails begin to develop about the tenth week after conception and scattered rudiments of hair also form at this time. External genitalia start to appear at the end of this week, which will indicate to the naked eye whether the child is a boy or a girl.

During the fourth month, fine palm lines have formed that can be used to permanently identify the child. Finger, palm and footprints are never duplicated among individuals.

Better and Better Early Diagnosis and Treatment

Physicians can now measure how the unborn child is growing and what its state of health is with a remarkable degree of accuracy. Doctors can operate on the child using advanced surgical techniques that don’t leave a scar.

Ultrasonic imaging is standard practice for measuring a child’s progress during most stages of pregnancy. However, an emerging technology called embryoscopy is very promising for use early in pregnancy. Through it, physicians can directly visualize the child during the first trimester, paving the way to improved early prenatal diagnosis and treatment. Taking advantage of high-resolution fiberoptic endoscopy, embryoscopic testing can be done as early as three weeks after conception. The face can be visualized as early as four weeks. Numerous diagnoses have already been done, but these just scratch the surface of the technology’s amazing potential.

The Unborn Child Moves Just Like Any Other Baby!

The way the child moves before birth is similar to the way a newborn baby moves. Prenatal movement patterns are easily recognizable to persons familiar with the kinds of movements made by pre-term and full-term infants. It’s amazing that the pattern of yawns and stretches seen in the first trimester remains the same throughout life. The child is engaged in all kinds of movements as early as the sixth week after conception. At this time, periods of inactivity typically last no more than about 260 seconds. See if you can identify with the movements that I’ve highlighted below.

Hiccups first occur during the sixth week after conception. In a study of twelve children all of them were hiccupping by the eighth week, with a median frequency of about 50 hiccups per hour.

Startles first occur from 6 to 7 weeks after conception. During the seventh week, they were observed in twelve of twelve children studied, with a median rate of 42 startles per hour.

Isolated arm movements begin about 7 to 8 weeks after conception, with isolated leg movements starting after the first 7 to 10 weeks of life. Backward head movements first occur from 7 to 10 weeks.

Rotations of the head also begin from the middle of the seventh week after conception to the middle of the tenth week. During the eleventh week, these movements were present in twelve of twelve children studied, with a median frequency of five rotations per hour. In a separate study, the median frequency was 63 rotations per hour during the eighteenth week.

Breathing movements begin during the eighth week after conception. A single, large displacement of the diaphragm can seem like a sigh. During the ninth week, ten of twelve children examined were making breathing movements, with a median frequency of about 30 breaths each hour. During the eleventh week all twelve children were breathing, and the movements doubled to about 60 per hour. By the seventeenth week, the median breathing rate was 208 times per hour.

The child’s breathing movements are related to the mother’s eating pattern. In a study of ten children twenty to twenty two weeks after conception, the frequency of their breathing movements was much higher during the second hour after their mother’s breakfast or lunch than during the third hour. Breathing movements occurred most often just after the mother’s meal at noon.

Stretches first occur during the eighth week after conception. From the twelfth week onward, stretching an arm is frequently accompanied by extending the fingers.

Jaw openings and forward head movements begin during the 8 to 12 weeks after conception. During the tenth week, ten of twelve children examined opened their jaws, with a median frequency of about 18 movements per hour. By the twelfth week, all twelve children were opening their jaws, and the median frequency had increased to 30 times per hour.

In a separate study of ten children during the twentieth to twenty second weeks after conception, the median number of jaw openings increased from 51 per hour in the early morning to 97 per hour in the early afternoon.

Hand-to-face contacts first occur 8 to 10 weeks after conception. The hand touches the face slowly and the fingers often open and close. The child also sometimes inserts fingers into its mouth.

During the tenth week after conception, hand-to-face contacts were seen in all twelve of twelve children examined, with a median frequency of about 25 contacts each hour. In a different study of nine children, the median number of hand-to-face contacts was 95 per hour eighteen weeks after conception.

Tongue movements begin during the ninth week after conception. Yawning starts from the middle of the ninth week to the middle of the thirteenth week. Finger movements first occur during the tenth week after conception when opening and closing of one or more fingers can be seen.

Sucking and swallowing begin from the middle of the tenth week after conception to the middle of the twelfth week.

By the thirteenth week, the child can accomplish a complete change of position, usually with a backwards somersault.

Slow eye movements first occur during the fourteenth week after conception and rapid eye movements begin during the twenty-first week. In an examination of nine children, the median number of eye movements during the eighteenth week after conception was 25 per hour, increasing to 101 per hour during the thirty fourth week. “Blink-startle” responses have been seen during the twenty second and twenty third weeks.

During the twentieth to twenty second weeks after conception, the daily pattern of the child’s heart rate follows changes in the mother’s heart rate. The child’s heart rate decreases overnight.

What the Unborn Child Senses

In addition to its rapid physical development in the womb, which includes, as we have seen, an impressive repertoire of movement patterns, the child’s senses also start to emerge during the prenatal period. As noted previously, the olfactory nerve, which is integral to the sense of smell, is present on the 35th day after conception. The foundation of the sense of smell is established on the 39th day when nerve fibers in the brain connect with the olfactory lobe.

At eight weeks after conception, local stimuli can induce partial closing of the fingers, opening of the mouth, and squinting. And during the eleventh week, if the region around the mouth is stimulated, the child will open its mouth and suck a finger.

The child can respond to sounds from the tenth to fourteenth weeks after conception. Changes in its heart rate, eye blinks and movements have occurred after sounds.

Taste buds begin to form during the eighth week after conception. An unborn child actually has more taste buds than a newborn and probably has a sense of taste.

The reflexes between the taste buds and facial muscles are in place by the twenty sixth to twenty eighth weeks after conception. A facial response was evoked at this time when a bitter-tasting substance was given to a child.

Unborn children may have a sweet tooth. In one case, a child swallowed more amniotic fluid when it was sweetened. In another, the child responded to the addition of a bad-tasting substance to the amniotic fluid by reducing its sucking movements.

We can’t, of course, ask an unborn child if it experiences pain. However, research suggests that the answer would likely be that it does.

From the fifth week after conception onward, pain pathways are running from sensory receptors in the skin to those in the brain. These nerve endings are at least as dense in the skin of a newborn as in an adult. Such receptors appear around the mouth during the fifth week after conception and are present in the face, palms, and soles of the feet by the ninth week, spreading to the trunk, arms and legs by the thirteenth weeks and to all areas of the skin by the eighteenth week. The development of the neocortex, the largest part of the brain, begins six weeks after conception and a full complement of nerve cells is present by the eighteenth week. At this time the pieces are in place to complete the pain circuitry. The evidence thus indicates that the child has developed sufficiently to sense pain late in gestation.

In a study of women undergoing amniocentesis during the third trimester, the sudden burst of body movements that the child made during the procedure may reflect a response to pain. These movements occurred when the needle either struck the child or the child moved against the needle. In another study, the child’s heart rate increased in response to scalp blood sampling, a procedure that is likely to be painful.

Learning in the Womb

Several studies suggest that children can learn while they are still in the womb. For example, newborns prefer the sound of their own mother’s voice. In one experiment, they learned to change their pattern of sucking in order to activate a recording of their mother’s voice instead of that of another woman. The preference appears to have been acquired before birth.

In another case, newborns preferred the sound of their mother’s voice when it was adjusted to resemble what they might have heard in the womb.

In an even more amazing study, newborns stopped crying and responded to songs played on shows that their mothers watched while they were pregnant.

Prenatal learning seems to extend to the sense of taste as well. Mothers who maintained the same diet before and after they gave birth were more successful in breastfeeding than mothers who changed to a less spicy diet. This may reflect the child’s preference for food the mother ate while she was pregnant because the mother’s milk contains clues about her diet.

About the Author

John F. Cogan is a Senior Vice President at the Daiwa Institute of Research America Inc., an affiliate of Daiwa Securities Co., Ltd., the second largest brokerage and investment banking firm in Japan, and one of the largest worldwide. He analyzes the U.S. health care market and makes investment recommendations on pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device companies.

Prior to joining Daiwa, he was an executive at the biotechnology company, Life Technologies, and at SmithKline Beckman Corporation, a major global supplier of pharmaceuticals and diagnostic products and services. Early in his career at SKB, he was a scientist in the organic chemistry section of the Company’s pharmaceutical research and development department.

He and his wife Cathy live in the suburban Philadelphia area.

Download these Appendices:

1. The Chronological Development of the Unborn Child

2. The Development of the Unborn Child's Body

3. Movement and Learning Patterns of the Unborn Child and the Development of the Senses

4. References

5. Download the entire pdf

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