Eating, tasting, and enjoying foods that land on our tastebuds is something that everyone can relate to. It is truly part of the human experience to indulge in foods that are a little salty, a little sweet, or a little too much of something delightful.
But, how many of us realise that tasting foods has been going on for a lot longer than we might have first thought? In fact, we start tasting foods while we are still in our mother’s womb! Now, this is where biology and human development can be a little weird and interesting.
Even before the mouth is fully formed and the swallowing reflexes are still working on their ability to be part of the real world, babies in the womb can start tasting food. Of course, they aren’t tasting their own food. They are sharing the tastes and flavours of foods that mom is putting in her belly. So even if you try to cover up the fact that you ate more chocolate than you intended to, baby knows for sure that you did!
Just how can a baby taste food in the womb? And what exactly does the baby taste in the womb? Find out with these bizarre and interesting facts of baby development!
Starting just eight weeks after conception, the little baby body is getting ready to start tasting foods. This is when the cells that make up the little bundle of joy start clustering together and getting ready to make organs and integral parts of the human body.
So, at this point following on from conception, the cells that are going to form the mouth and taste buds get together. Even though they’re just cells at this point, they are still getting ready to play their important role. Perhaps they even start plotting what they are going to enjoy the most. Predisposed to a sweet tooth? Prefer that salty crunchy of a crisp? Well, this isn’t the literal moment of truth, but it is the moment the taste buds first truly form.
Although the cluster of cells that are the future taste buds are forming, they still need the importance of the neuron connection to actually serve their purpose. Fortunately, since the developing fetus really knows what it is doing with life, this all happens together around the 8 week mark.
After the taste buds' cells are formed and ready in their little cluster group, the brain neurons connect up with them. This means that the blueprint framework, so to speak, is all there and ready to go just a short 8 weeks after conception. Essentially, there needs to be no new work done on this area for a while. Once the baby is all developed enough (these things take time, right), things are ready to taste and distinguish flavours. Just like that!
As we now know, at eight weeks after conception, the cells are gathering that will form the mouth of taste buds. Just a few weeks after this, around 13-15 weeks, the actual taste buds form in the mouth. That’s right, in that little hole that is the mouth and will soon have a tongue, the little taste buds are popping up all over the place.
This is pretty incredible to think about since the growing fetus barely even resembles a human life form at this point. Yet, everything the human body needs for survival and instinct is already forming. This means that the taste buds are forming and functioning, even though they aren’t capable of truly recognizing or distinguishing tastes yet. Nonetheless, there they are, at the ready and prepared to start tasting food and figuring out the good from the bad!
Now, things have been in place for a while by the 16 week mark. We have taste buds formed, we have a full set of cluster cells, and we have neuron connections registering things with the brain (once it is developed enough). So, what else needs to happen? Well, the taste bud cells also have these things called taste pores. These needed just a few extra weeks to kick into gear and come to understand what their role is. So here is it.
By 16 weeks, the taste pores are actually able to recognise what the amniotic fluid taste likes. Since the baby is developing in this floating pool of water, this is the only flavour they are exposed to. Yet, the amniotic fluid doesn’t taste the same each day. There are reasons why it varies. And by 16 weeks, the taste pores of the baby can tell each day’s flavours apart.
So, the way that babies taste food is by swallowing the amniotic fluid. At first, when the taste are first ready to register food by around 16 weeks, the ‘tasting’ is done just by the amniotic water hitting the taste pores. There isn’t actually active swallowing done on the baby’s part. However, this changes by the time trimester three rolls around.
In this large stage of development, the baby is starting to get used to life in the womb. The baby is starting to know that, hey, that water is tasty. That water can be super tasty on some days! Therefore, little bubs starts swallowing more and more. By now, the swallowing reflex is well developed, so the baby can actively chow down the water. In fact, they hit up around a litre of amniotic fluid a day during this trimester. Keep those flavours coming!
Mom and baby are connected in some pretty amazing and crazy ways. From the umbilical cord that distributes the blood flow so that both get their equal share, to the placenta which is a whole new organ that grows just to sustain the connection. No wonder that moms share an unbreakable and unbelievable bond with their babies.
Another way that the two are connected is through food. This shouldn’t be so surprising, given that food is such a common way for two people to connect and share important conversations over. Yet, when the baby is still inside the womb, just how do they share a foodie connection? Well, anything that mom eats ends up in the amniotic fluid. And after 16 weeks of development, the baby can distinguish these flavours in the amniotic fluid. So bubs will be saying thanks for those sweets early on!
Not only do babies taste what mom puts into her body through the amniotic fluid, the baby can also taste something way more personal about mom. In fact, the baby can taste what mom’s blood tastes like. Um, vampire? It is gross right, but this is just what the connection between mom and bubs facilitates.
Basically, the molecules from mom’s bloodstream ends up in the amniotic waters. This is because the blood flow needs to be shared from mom to bubs via the placenta. Some remnants of the blood flow swirl around the amniotic fluid, which is what the baby is learning to taste. So sometimes things might be a little sweet, sometimes a little salty, and sometimes it’ll taste like blood. Everyday is a surprise for the baby’s developing taste buds!
It isn’t too surprising that some flavours are stronger than others. We all have that one flavour that really stands out for us, and we can identify amongst a cluster of other flavours. Well, the same goes for babies in the womb, believe it or not. Things like garlic, mint, and curry are super distinguishable for the little developing baby.
Since anything that mom eats is being registered by the developing taste buds that are hit with the flavours of the amniotic fluid, the baby is also learning to tell different flavours apart. Therefore, baby can taste the flavours of a night out at an Indian restaurant, or when you’re craving extra garlic in your cooking, just as much as you can! These strong flavours are impressionable from a young age, apparently.
The majority of what we taste comes from what we smell as well. This is why there are experiments and research to show that if one is blindfolded, they can still taste and tell flavours apart. Yet, if someone’s nose if pegged, it is much harder to register the individual flavours of food. The sense of smell is a powerful one.
This is a sense that does develop in the womb, too. Alongside the taste buds that are learning to tell the foods apart from the flavours that enter the amniotic fluids, the little growing nose is also kicking into gear. This means that the baby not only tastes the amniotic fluid, but also smells it before the waters hit the taste buds. No wonder flavours with a distinguishable smell such as garlic or mint are more noticeable - the nose knows!
Life in the womb is an impressionable one and does shape a lot of the future to come. In regards to food, time in the womb does garnish the palate and leave the baby with a taste for flavours before it is even born. What mom eats while she is pregnant has a big say on the baby’s appetite when they are in the real world.
So, want your baby to eat more vegetables? Better eat these while s/he is growing in the womb. Want a baby that is fussy for flavours and spices? Hit up these meals after 16 weeks and your baby will start tasting them from the get go. In theory, this is also a way to rule out food allergies, by eating things like shellfish and peanut butter while the baby is in the womb, but there isn’t 100% evidence to back this.
There is a good reason babies come out with a semi-sweet tooth. Of course, parents don’t think this reason is any good once they hit the toddler stage and start having tantrums over a candy bar. However, biologically it is important for babies to come out of the womb predisposed to preferring sweets.
This is because breast milk is naturally sweet. The way that the hormones blend up the milk production, mixing it with whatever foods mom puts in her body, it turns out to a sweet concoction. Therefore, babies need to be drawn to this sweetness so that they are more inclined to feed. This starts in the womb when babies naturally prefer when the amniotic fluid is more sweet. It can be inconvenient later on, but sweetness is an important part of the newborn’s diet.
The importance of a balanced diet in life, not just when pregnant, cannot be emphasised enough. In fact, eating a balanced diet while the baby is growing in the womb is a surefire way to kickstart a passion for balance and healthiness early on in life.
Now, this of course isn’t the only way to make sure your baby eats healthy once they exited the womb. You still need to do a fair share of the work by introducing balanced meals and educating your child about the importance of nutritional balance. However, starting the habits early on, when bubs is still in utero, will make the journey easier for both you and the baby to eat healthy. Furthermore, a balanced diet while bubs is in the womb provides a healthier start to life. That should be a top priority!
Sources: Whattoexpect.com, Npr.org, Beingtheparent.com