Even as newborns, babies know exactly how to scrunch up their faces and cry. And no wonder -- new research from England suggests that we practice making mean faces even before we're born.
Researchers at Durham and Lancaster universities found that even by 36 weeks of gestational age fetuses are able to grimace and make complex facial expressions -- and this developmental stage may help doctors better gauge fetal health. Fascinating.
“This suggests that we can determine the normal development of facial movements and potentially identify abnormal development too," study co-author Dr. Nadja Reissland, a senior lecturer in Durham University’s psychology department, said in a written statement. "Our research indicates that the expression of fetal facial movements is a developmental process which seems to be related to brain maturation rather than being linked to feelings."
The researchers studied 4D scans of 15 healthy fetuses at 24 weeks making simple facial expressions, like a slight curl of the lips into a smile. Then they studied images of fetuses at 36 weeks making complex facial expressions, like a grimace of "pain." The researchers think that making these faces prepares the fetus for learning how to communicate once out of the womb.
"It is vital for infants to be able to show pain as soon as they are born so that they can communicate any distress or pain they might feel to their carers," Reissland said in the statement, "and our results show that healthy fetuses ‘learn’ to combine the necessary facial movements before they are born."
While it's unclear whether a grimacing fetus is actually feeling pain, Reissland said, additional research may explore whether noxious conditions in the womb -- for example, from the effects of smoking or alcohol consumption -- may delay the development of these fetal facial expressions.
The new study, published June 5, 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE, extends previous research that first identified facial expressions in the womb.
A 27-week-old fetus making a facial expression.
A 32-week-old fetus making a facial expression.