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Scientists Find Evidence That Fetuses Love Faces

Photograph by Getty Images

Babies are fascinated by the human face, which explains why they can't stop staring at ours whenever we get close enough for them to see us making fools of ourselves.

But when does this phenomenon begin? How soon after birth can a baby can tell the difference between a sponge and our face?

Research from the last couple of decades has pretty much concluded that babies can hear what we are saying in utero and even develop a familiarity and affinity toward the language their mom and her community speak. It’s also why they tell us to be careful what you say around a pregnant woman.

Next question then: Is it possible that these tiny miracles can see us at all? Scientists have started to think so, and there's now evidence that strongly supports the idea.

By projecting light through the uterine wall of pregnant mothers, researchers were able to observe fetuses and record their reactions using 4D ultrasound.

The study included test responses of 39 fetuses to face-like patterns of light that moved across their field of vision in both upright and inverted orientations. They found that developing babies, at 34 weeks gestation, will turn their heads to look at face-like images over all other shapes.

Wow! Talk about Netflix and chill.

The ultrasound movies also recorded that developing babies turned their heads to look at face-like images that were presented to them upright more often than those shown upside down.

"We have shown the fetus can distinguish between different shapes, preferring to track face-like over non-face-like shapes," Vincent Reid of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, said. "This preference has been recognized in babies for many decades, but until now exploring fetal vision has not been attempted."

Although Reid believes there was always the possibility that the fetus would find any shape interesting due to the novelty of the stimulus, he said, “If this was the case, we would have seen no difference in how they responded to the upright and upside-down versions of the stimuli. But it turned out that they responded in a way that was very similar to infants."

Scientists are working hard to improve the light source used in the current study in preparation for further exploration. According to them, fetuses have enough light already and plenty to look at inside the womb without the added thrill of a spotlight to enhance their viewing pleasure.

In other words, there will come a day when over the counter fetal flashlights are a thing, but it hasn't happened yet. Until then, Reid discourages anyone from shining bright lights into a pregnant mother's belly.

There is a method to the madness of cinema science and pregnant women must be careful. If we’re smart, we will let the professionals figure out the best (and safest) way to communicate with our unborn child while enjoying those final 4D moments with Dr. Rubber Gloves before baby is born and all hell breaks loose.

It’s just good advice, really.

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