Although You Can'T See It, Your Baby Is Getting Up To Some Pretty Cool Things In The Womb.
How Babies Respond in the Womb
Researchers first began to be curious about how babies respond in the womb when they noticed that pretty much immediately after birth, babies show a preference for their mother's voice. Did the babies learn their mothers' voices while they were still in the womb? Or did they just automatically know who their mothers were by nature?
Now, we know, of course, that babies do start learning and responding to the world while they are still in the womb. In fact, studies have shown us that babies start responding a lot earlier than you might expect when they are still in the womb. One 2015 study, for example, found that the earliest a baby was recorded responding to sound in the womb was 16 weeks old, which is actually before the ears are even fully developed. The study also found that talking and touching the baby in the womb directly affected the fetus and that fetuses will kick more and move more as a result.
Babies in utero can get startled, move around, urinate, and as every woman who's been pregnant knows, do a mean somersault. But what about crying? It seems like it would be difficult to tell if a baby is actually crying in the womb, thanks to all that amniotic fluid and the fact that a baby in the womb might not have much to complain about—after all, she's got a pretty cozy set-up going on in there.
What Happens When a Baby Cries?
Although you might think of crying as something that's pretty simple, there's actually a lot that goes into a cry. In order for a baby to accomplish crying, there has to be a lot of coordination between multiple systems in the body, including face muscles, airway regulation, and breathing. The main thing that needs to happen for a baby to cry is some sort of vocalization—aka sound. This study demonstrated that there is both a non-vocal and vocal component to crying. So when a baby starts learning how to cry in the womb, they are exhibiting the non-vocal side of a cry.
But what's most important to recognize with a baby crying is that a cry is actually an important developmental milestone. A baby being able to cry actually demonstrates that his or her brain and nervous system and body are working correctly to accomplish crying. So a cry is much more than meets the eye—a cry actually represents that your baby is:
Recognizing some sort of outside stimuli happening
Processing that the stimuli is something potentially harmful or threatening and thus a negative stimulus
Reacting to the stimuli through a set of multiple pathways, from physically moving away to trying to vocalize to brain sensory awareness
Crying ensures the baby is able to signal to a caregiver that he or she needs help, is in distress, or needs to be moved from a threatening situation and is literally a survival mechanism.