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Mr. Dad: Senses form in the womb

Mon., June 21, 2010

Dear Mr. Dad: Please settle an argument. My wife – who’s five months pregnant – says that our baby’s senses are developing throughout the pregnancy. How can an unborn baby develop a sense of touch or taste or anything else?

A: This round goes to your wife. Your baby will be born with a full set of senses: touch, hearing, sight, smell, and taste. But they don’t just show up at birth, completely out of the blue. They begin forming very early on in the pregnancy and the fetus starts trying to use them immediately.

In previous columns, we’ve talked about what babies hear before they’re born. Here’s an introduction to the rest of the senses.


About two months into the pregnancy, your baby’s skin – her body’s largest organ – is fully formed. To help develop their sense of touch, fetuses spend a lot of time exploring themselves – grasping the umbilical cord, stroking the face, sucking on fingers, and kicking and banging against the walls of the uterus. If the baby has a womb-mate or two, the occupants often explore each other.

•Smell and taste (sometimes lumped together as “chemosensation.”)

Your baby’s mouth and tongue developed a few months ago. For the past month or two, she’s been gulping down impressive amounts of amniotic fluid, peeing it right back out, and drinking it up again (it’s best to get that image out of your mind.)

The amniotic fluid that flows through her mouth and nasal passages changes flavor constantly, depending on what your partner eats.

(Researchers have found that adults were able to smell garlic in amniotic fluid collected from women undergoing amniocentesis who had eaten garlic just 45 minutes before the test.)

But mixed in there among the curry and chili peppers and PB&J sandwiches are some odor molecules that are distinctly Mom.

After birth, the baby’s sense of smell helps her adjust to life outside the womb. Mom’s nipples smell (to the baby) like amniotic fluid, and that scent helps attract the baby to the breast.


Your baby’s eyes will be fused shut for another month or two. Even after they open, it’ll still be pretty dark inside Mom. Nevertheless, she’s doing some visual processing.

For example, if you were to shine a bright light on your partner’s belly (which you shouldn’t do), your baby’s heart rate would accelerate and she’d turn away from it.

Because of the lack of practice, eyesight will be your baby’s least-developed sense when she emerges from the womb. At first, things will be a little blurry, although she’ll be able to see objects – or people – 10 to 15 inches away fairly well.

But in 6 to 9 months, her eyesight will be pretty much up to snuff.

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