15 Things You Didn't Know About The Fetus' Brain

While the belly gets bigger on the outside, it can be easy for pregnant women to take for granted just what is happening on the inside that is pushing it to its limits. From the moment of conception, incredible things start happening to a growing fetus. As these cells come together to grow into a soon-to-be ready made mini human, so too do the brain cells grow in amazing ways.

The foundation of intelligence for every child is formed while still in the womb. That means that while you’re dealing with everything from morning sickness to swollen feet on the outside, it could all be in the name of the next Einstein growing on the inside. Fetal brain development is rather incredible for many reasons. We are lucky that we live in an age of such scientific knowledge and we have access to information about what happens when a baby is developing in utero.

Of course, as the baby’s brain grows, looking after it and ensuring it has the best environment to reach its potential is pivotal. Even when you are suffering ‘baby brain’ and forgetting where you left your car keys, as a mom-to-be you still need to take care of your baby’s brain.

Find out some of the amazing things that happen to your growing baby’s brain so that you can best look after it. There are many factors that affect how a baby’s brain develops, and this is a development that you certainly want to invest in getting right!

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15 Babies Are Born ‘Early’ For Better Brain Development

The typical gestation period of a human is 40 weeks. What isn’t so well known, however, is that there is technically a ‘fourth trimester’ in which the brain still develops on the outside of the womb. Plain and simple, the baby’s head can only be a certain size if it wants to make it out of the birthing canal in one easy go. This is why babies are born at 40 weeks. However, at this point in time, the brain is still under-developed.

Since the brain is so sensitive when it first comes out, we are taught to swaddle an infant for the first three weeks, and attempt to mimic life in utero. This is also why babies are so sensitive to noise and light, because the brain isn’t entirely ready for them. So while the brain is under-developed, it actually benefits the baby significantly. The baby’s brain is so impressionable that it soaks up senses and scenarios easily. Therefore, while it is still developing and ‘setting’, the brain is learning to survive in society.

14 A Healthy Diet Means A Healthy Baby Brain

Some food for thought when feeding the growing baby’s brain may seem obvious at first. A well balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables are top of the list as key ingredients. However, there is more depth behind what these ingredients give the baby’s brain.

Foods rich in omega-3, such as fish, help to boost your baby’s brainpower while it is still developing. However, it is important to ensure these are low mercury type of fish, such as salmon, sardines, and herring. Fish high in mercury such as swordfish have potential damages to neurological development, so steer clear of that option when you head out to fancy sea food restaurants.

The other foods you really want to focus on are ones rich in protein and iron. These can be found in things such as bananas, beans, spinach, legumes, and eggs. A healthy brain needs a healthy body, so the growing baby requires these nutrients for optimal development.

13 Folic Acid Supports Neural Development

This little wonder of the world is something that every brain out there can benefit from. Folic acid is crucial to the developing baby brain. It is recommended that pregnant women include about 400 to 800mg of folic acid for the best neurological development. In fact, folic acid is what makes the neural tube grow, which is the tissue that helps develop the brain and spinal chord. These are two super important things for a healthy baby!

To get enough folic acid, start finding some tasty recipes that include green leafy vegetables. Broccoli is going to be become your new best friend, which is great because it matches well with beans, which you’ll also be eating a lot of. Don’t forget about citrus fruits too, which are easy to manage if you add some lemon to your water each day. It is also suggested to take folic acid supplements to be entirely sure you are getting enough of this vital key for development.

12 The Brain Gets Straight Into Action During Trimester One

A lot more is happening in trimester one than expectant mom’s may think. After all, when the bump is really bumping out too much, it can be easy to forgot that incredible growth is still going on inside the womb. In fact, it only takes 16 days from conception for the neural plates to form on the fetus. Basically, in just over 2 weeks, the brain is kicking into gear.

What happens is the basis of the brain and spinal chord start developing at 16 days. The neural tube closes at around 7 weeks of pregnancy, where it then splits into three sections. These are called the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain. Fast forward through this week, and the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, pituitary gland, and the hypothalamus are forming too. This all explains why about 8 weeks into the pregnancy, you can feel little flutters and kicks, because the brain is already controlling the movements of baby's little, under-formed limbs.

11 Baby Is Born With All Necessary Neurons

When giving birth, a literal ready made mini human is what comes out. Given that the development has been what we consider ‘normal’, babies come flying out of the womb with 100 billion neurons. Even though their brain is half the size of an adults because it is still growing and developing, it features double the amount of neurons. Simply put, the baby needs these neurons because it has a whole lot of learning to do in a short amount of time.

The baby’s brain will double in size by the time the child is 3 years old. Of those 100 billion neurons, some will have been used up by this point. This is synaptic pruning and it is when the brain separates useful and useless conceptions and connections, and gets rid of the weaker things that are no longer important to functioning. Too bad for some of those interactions in the first 3 years!

10 Physical Touch Strengthens The Brain

This one is more relevant for once the baby is outside the womb, but as the brain is still growing at this point, it is a good one to keep in mind. There is evidence to suggest that physical connection is stronger in babies who receive regular touch. Regular hugging, stroking, and holding of a newborn baby leads to a thicker hippocampus, which means a stronger memory, better focus, and better ability to learn and retain information.

So there is a lot to be said about a mother’s love and the power of touch for the developing brain. This means that while baby is still in the womb, you better be getting ready for a whole lot of hugging and holding. This is an easy and natural way to ensure your baby has the best brain development possible. After all, it’s a mother’s instinct to hug a baby, and your newborn is going to thrive if you do!

9 The Brain Is Hardwired To The Mother’s Smell

Still on that strong motherly bond with a newborn, the baby’s brain is literally conditioned and hardwired to prefer their mom’s scent above all others. This is pretty unconditional, so no matter how badly mom thinks she smells, baby is still going to favour that odour!

While in the womb, the brain feeds off the amniotic fluid. This is the fluid that they float in for 9 months and it becomes somewhat important. It becomes so important, in fact, that they are almost attracted to it outside the womb, which helps the baby find mom’s nipple for breastfeeding.

During the initial days of mother-baby bonding time outside the womb, the bonding hormone oxytocin is at its strongest. This is a very powerful connection that leads the baby to prefer it’s mother’s scent and find comfort, happiness, and security when close to it. This is why nothing calms a crying baby like a hug from mom!

8 By Trimester Two The Brainstem Is Developed

The baby’s brain is ready to go by the second trimester without anyone even realising. By 16 weeks, the brain is developed enough to send some powerful messages throughout the growing body. At 16 weeks, sucking and swallowing impulses kick in for the first time. At 21 weeks, the brain sends strong enough messages for swallowing the amniotic fluid to start happening. This is when the baby starts tasting for the first time as well, another sense recognised by the brain now.

Towards the end of trimester two, the brainstem is matured and it rests just above the spinal chord, below the cerebral cortex, which are the last two parts to mature. The brainstem, however, is fully in control of breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure at this point.

Finally, at 28 weeks, the brain now recognises sounds on the outside of the womb (and may sometimes jump or startle them) and has regular sleep patterns. Not a bad effort!

7 Rapid Brain Growth Happens In Trimester Three

Trimester three is where the action really happens. Although the brain is mature at 28 weeks, there is still a whole lot of development waiting to happen for those last three months. This is more about physical growth of the brain, rather than the connections made inside it. In fact, during the last 13 weeks inside that warm and cosy womb, the baby’s brain literally triples in size and weight. This is a rapid growth from 3.5 ounces to a whopping 10.6 ounces.

During this period of physical brain growth, the cerebellum is starting to develop and learning to control gross motor skills inside the womb. This is the fastest development the brain sees until it is in the real world. In fact, the surface area of the cerebellum increases 30-fold throughout the last 16 weeks of pregnancy. Baby sure knows what’s important before it comes crying out into the bright lights of reality!

6 Genes Create A ‘Brain Blueprint’

There is a lot to be said about genetics and the role they play on a baby’s brain development. A lot of factors that contribute to brain growth in the womb are environmental and health related, but genetics were there first.

What the genes that mom and dad (or sperm donor in whatever form he takes), contribute to this genetic blueprint of the brain includes the final pathway, location, and interrelationship between neurons. This is super important to lay the foundation, but once genetics have done their work, it’s up to mom’s diet and lifestyle to take over from there.

This is why it can’t be emphasised enough that expectant mom’s need to take care of themselves during pregnancy. They are literally eating for two so need double the nutritional value per meal, and need to kick any bad habits of smoking and drinking alcohol. As for dad (or sperm donor in whatever form he takes), he has done his bit with his genetic contribution, but still plays a vital role in helping to develop the baby in terms of creating a positive environment and mood.

5 The Brain Consumes All Of Baby's Energy

The brain is a hungry beast, even while developing in the womb. As the brain progresses throughout human growth outside the womb, it is constantly starving for nutrients and energy so that it can learn and retain information along the way. This starts while it is still in utero.

During development in the womb, the brain is what grows the fastest and the biggest, and at such a short amount of time. This means that 60 per cent of all the metabolic energy a baby soaks up from mom though the umbilical chord is dedicated to the brain growth. To put this in perspective, by the time the brain reaches adulthood, it only needs 25 per cent of metabolic energy. So it does calm down after a while, but in those early days that brain is pretty demanding.

The brain requires a lot of energy once the baby is first born as well. This is why they become tired so quickly, get cranky easily, and need regular naps, because the brain is consuming so much energy for it’s rapid development in those first 3 years of life.

4 Three Factors Make Up The Brain Development In Utero

We have touched a bit on the things that influence a baby’s growing brain while in the womb, but it really does come down to three vital factors for optimal development. These include genetics (60%), diet of the mother (10%), and environmental factors (30%).

Although genetics sounds like it is the biggest factor, like we said earlier, it ultimately just lays the foundation. A lot can still go wrong with that foundation if the other 40% of factors aren’t taken seriously enough.

If there has ever been a time in your life to eat healthy and look after yourself, pregnancy is it. The nutritional value of the food given to a baby through the umbilical chord is so crucial in these early stages of brain development. Moreover, if mom-to-be is constantly stressed, anxious, and overworked, the baby is going to pick up on this vibe and it can have a negative affect on brain development. It’s not being selfish during pregnancy to take time out and relax – it’s actually been totally selfless for the sake of your baby.

3 Mother’s Moods Affects The Baby’s Brain Development

This point comes back to the environmental factors touched on before. It is important for soon-to-be mom to be calm and unstressed for the majority of time while baby’s brain is growing. The moods and emotions (which can mean mood swings and emotional rollercoasters during pregnancy) of mom-to-be actually determine how the baby’s brain is hardwired in those early days of growth.

Basically what happens is that neurotransmitters and hormones make their way from the placenta to the developing brain via the bloodstream. Therefore, expectant mom’s can literally train their baby’s brain to be stressed and anxious based on their reactions. Alternatively, a positive attitude and calm approach to life will teach your baby’s brain to respond in this manner. Pregnancy is really a time to start reassessing how you deal with problems in your life, because they are literally setting your child up for life. This is something worth getting right from day one!

2 There Are Unexpected Risk Factors To Baby’s Brain Growth

When it comes to things that are bad for baby’s brain growth, some pretty obvious ones are drug use, alcohol abuse, and smoking cigarettes. These are things that simply need to stop during pregnancy for the best outcome for baby.

However, some factors that you might not think of straight away are out there, too. For instance, the age of the parents does have an impact on brain development. A study from the University of Queensland in Australia found that autism (a neurodevelopment disorder) was higher in children born to parents over the age of 40. For women, the risk of autism being prevalent in a child increases 18 per cent every 5 years.

Also, a lack of sunshine and vitamin D has a big impact on the baby’s growing brain. This is because vitamin D is important for the development of the central nervous system. If that’s not a reason to enjoy some sunshine while you can during pregnancy, not much else is!

1 The Brain Is Ready To Talk Before Baby Is

It takes a while outside the womb for babies to utter their first word, and new parents sit and wait anxiously to hear what it’s going to be. However, the brain is actually ready to speak long before those adorable first words come on out.

The Broca’s area of the cerebellum is what is responsible for the physical aspects of speech. This is a motor reflex and it is activated before they actually begin to speak. A study at the University of Washington found, as this is activated before speech happens, that the brain is essentially setting up transitional groundwork. Basically, the brain predicts what motor skills will be needed for speech, long before the vocabulary is even there.

This all links back to the cerebellum development in in the womb, which really takes off during trimester three. In theory, baby could come out ready to open their mouth and talk, but there is no known words ready yet. So they basically practice this motor skill by moving the jaw and mouth, and take their time to decide what word is going to sound best!

Sources: Mentalfloss.com, Parents.com, Whattoexpect.com, Factslegend.org

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