Unborn babies see more than we first thought, study reveals

The developing eyes of unborn babies are far more complex than scientists first thought, new research suggests.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley found that, by the thirteenth week of pregnancy, light-sensitive cells in the retinas of developing babies interact with each other in an interconnected network and could affect brain development in unsuspected ways.

Incredibly, the scientific breakthrough could help explain problems such as light-induced migraines or why light therapy works for depression.

It was previously thought that unborn babies could not see at this point in their development.

However, the recent discovery has gone beyond known information that already found babies in the womb sensed light at sixteen weeks in order to become accustomed to 24-hour, day-night rhythms.

Marla Feller, who is a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology and has spent 20 years of studying the developing retina, said:

“In the past, people demonstrated that these light-sensitive cells are important for things like the development of the blood vessels in the retina and light entrainment of circadian rhythms, but those were kind of a light on/light off response, where you need some light or no light.

“This seems to argue that they are actually trying to code for many different intensities of light, encoding much more information than people had previously thought.”

Two years ago, it was revealed that babies may be able to recognise faces while still in the womb.

Researchers at Lancaster University found unborn babies would turn their heads towards shapes which resemble faces – with the position of eyes and nose picked out.

Their study, which was conducted on 39 expectant mothers who were 34 weeks (8 months) pregnant, suggests that the instinct to recognise facial features develops before a baby has even seen their first face.

It also shows that an unborn baby’s senses are already well developed and parents should begin interacting with their baby while it is still in the womb.

The majority of premature babies grow up to be healthy adults

The majority of premature babies grow up to be healthy adults without any major health problems, a new study suggests.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed 2.56 million babies born in Sweden between 1973 and 1997, around six percent of whom were born prematurely.

Researchers compared the health data of the premature babies to those that had been born at full-term. They found that 55% of premature babies had no serious chronic, physical, or mental health issues by early adulthood. This is compared to 63% for babies born at full-term.

Additionally, with each passing decade, the odds of survival for a premature baby to adulthood improved from about 91% of babies born in the 1970s to about 96% of those born in the 1990s.

Dr Casey Crump, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City told Reuters: “Our findings reflect the apparent resilience of preterm birth survivors in maintaining good health. Despite increased risks of several chronic disorders, the majority can still have good overall health in adulthood”.

However, the study also found the earlier babies are born the harder it becomes to avoid complications.

Just 22% of extremely premature babies – those born between 22 to 27 weeks gestation – were alive without any health problems by the end of the study.

This compares with 49% of very premature babies – born between 28 to 33 weeks – and 58% of late premature babies – born at 34 to 36 weeks.

These outcomes were similar for men and women.

The study comes as the survival rate for extremely premature babies has doubled over the past decade, prompting new guidance allowing doctors to try to save babies born as early as 22 weeks into a pregnancy.

In 2008 only two out of ten babies born alive at 23 weeks went on to survive. Today it is four out of ten, according to a new analysis from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine.

The findings of both studies have prompted calls to review the current law in order to help lower abortion numbers and save the lives of babies capable of being born alive.

Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said:

“These studies add further evidence to the need for Parliament to urgently review our current abortion time limit. We support any change in law that would help lower abortion numbers and save the lives of babies in the womb. 

“It’s time that our laws were brought into line with public opinion, modern science and the majority of Europe.

“We urge everyone to ask their MP candidates to sign our Both Lives Pledge and commit to lowering the gestational time limit for abortion, something that is well-supported by women.

“Independent polling from ComRes shows that 70% of women in the UK want to see the time limit for abortion reduced to 20 weeks or below.”

About 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year, of which 3,148 are considered “extremely premature” — born before 27 weeks.