Your baby can recognise your face before they're even born.

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It’s long been known that unborn babies become accustomed to the sound of their parents’ voices.

Mothers and fathers take comfort in the fact they can sing or talk or play music for their children in utero and that, even though they may not be able to respond or provide feedback, the unborn child can hear everything that’s going on.

That’s sound. But how about sight?

When we think about the day-to-day happenings of an unborn foetus, the fundamental belief is that apart from slowly growing in the cosy environment of mum’s womb, they aren’t up to much. They’re all curled up, snoozing, probably with their eyes closed.

But a recent study suggests otherwise.

New research published in the medical journal Current Biology shows that foetuses in the third trimester of pregnancy have vision capabilities much more advanced than previously thought.

Vincent Reid, lead researcher in the study and Professor of Psychology at Lancaster University told How Stuff Works, “We have been able to explore the use of all the foetal senses except vision up until now.

According to Reid, the newborn baby is very good at recognising human faces over any other shape. “It was logical to explore the development of this preference before birth.”

When can a newborn baby see as well as we can? And what does sight have to do with how dark your nipples are? A paediatrician explains, on Mamamia’s Year One podcast. POST CONTINUES AFTER AUDIO!


39 foetuses were examined in total during the study, all within the third trimester of pregnancy. Their gestational age ranged between 231 and 252 days.

Because the foetuses were at such a crucial stage developmentally, researchers created a non-invasive method of assessing their vision based upon a 4D model of the uterus which revealed it’s an environment with far more light than we previously thought.

Researchers simply shone light through the maternal tissue for the unborn bubs to see. “The light consisted of three dots,” Reid explained to How Stuff Works. “When these are arranged to represent two for the eyes and one for the mouth, newborn babies prefer to look at them more than anything else. So we didn’t show foetuses a ‘face’ but an image that was ‘face-like.'”

Left: three dots representing two eyes and a mouth. Right: dot configuration inverted as to represent a non-facial-configuration. Image credit Oxford Handbooks Online.

The face-like pattern of dots was also shown inverted, so it did not represent a face, to compare results. 4D ultrasound was then used to measure whether or not, and if so how much, the foetuses turned their head to perceive the visual stimuli.

Here is what happened...

  • the third trimester foetuses looked towards the dots configured like a face
  • they did NOT look towards the inverted dots that resembled nothing

So. What does all this mean, you may be asking. How on earth is this important for me parenting my child?

Well, it's not. But it does change the way you should think about your newborn baby. Most importantly, when your bub looks at you for the first time, they are already pre-dispositioned to the human face.

Image source: Getty.

As Professor Reid says, "[It] is either due to being innate or due to experiences prior to birth." In other words, we are somehow innately programmed to know what a human face looks like, or foetuses can somehow see faces through their mother's maternal wall.

And that is where research shall take us next.

You can listen to the full episode of Year One, below. 

Click here to join Year One With Baby on Facebook for more content, and to discuss everything surrounding the first year of your baby's life. 

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