If you’re like many expecting parents, you can’t help but wonder — as your baby rolls, punches, and kicks — what exactly goes on in the womb.
Scientists are curious as well, and they’ve been studying fetal behavior in utero for decades. Thanks to technological advancements, more is known about what goes on in the womb than ever before. We can even answer the question: Is my baby crying in there?
The answer is: They could be, although not in the way you’re picturing. To hear those real, full-blown infant cries, you’ll have to wait for the delivery room — or shortly thereafter, when you’re trying to get some sleep at 2 a.m. (However, your baby can still benefit from your soothing voice and touch until then.)
Let’s take a look at what’s going on that you can’t hear or see.
To understand whether babies really “cry” in the womb, it’s important to take into account what goes into the behavior of crying, not just the characteristic sound. Babies can’t be heard crying until they’re in contact with air rather than fluid, so scientists rely on studying the complex physical behaviors and responses that cause a cry.
In 2005 New Zealand researchers conducted one of the
Before this study, only four behavioral, fetal states had been proven to exist, including quiet, active, sleep, and awake states. However, the findings revealed a new state, referred to as 5F, which is the state of crying behaviors.
By 20 weeks old, the New Zealand study revealed, a fetus can perform all of the actions needed to cry, including:
- extending the tongue
- coordinating more complex breathing efforts
- opening the jaw
- moving the mouth
- quivering the chin
The babies observed crying in the womb were 24 weeks and older.
The same study reported that the only audible cries heard by the outside world occur during an extremely rare phenomenon called vagitus uterinus.
It involves a baby crying in utero during an operation in which air has been allowed to enter the uterus, suggesting that the first audible cries only happen during the transition to the outside world.
You can see it on their face
Scientists in this case also agreed that while the non-vocal behaviors related to crying develop before birth, the vocal component of crying doesn’t start until birth. So while you may see your baby’s face scrunched up during the third trimester on an ultrasound, you’re not going to hear anything!
Basically, your baby is practicing how to cry — let’s call it warming up for the real thing. The studies mentioned above used a sound to startle the fetus to achieve the crying response, avoiding anything that would cause pain. Even after that, babies cried for less than 15–20 seconds, so there aren’t any hour-long cry-it-out sessions taking place in your womb!
Scientists generally agree that babies can feel pain by the third trimester, although there’s some debate on when exactly this begins. The crying studies simply show that babies can process something as a negative stimulus and react to it accordingly.
There’s no proof at this point that the baby is sad, having gas, or responding to other uncomfortable circumstances, but scientists aren’t completely sure.
It may be beneficial to focus on the cool things going on in there rather than worry about brief crying episodes. You can even control your potential ability to help baby feel secure!
The scientists explained that a fetus showed more movement when mom put her hands on her belly. What’s more, a baby in the womb might even become calmer when you talk to them in a soothing voice!
In addition, third-trimester fetuses showed more regulatory behaviors, such as yawning, resting behaviors like crossing their arms, and self-touch when mom spoke to or touched her belly (compared with second-trimester fetuses). Your baby is also able to smile and blink in the womb.
So disregard the naysayers who think your baby can’t hear you or respond to your touch. Chat with your baby about anything you want, sing songs, and touch your belly until your heart’s content.
While it’s true your baby can cry in the womb, it doesn’t make a sound, and it’s not something to worry about. The baby’s practice cries include imitating the breathing pattern, facial expression, and mouth movements of a baby crying outside of the womb.
You shouldn’t worry that your baby is in pain. Developing the ability to react to negative stimuli is a skill that scientists have described as useful later, when baby’s cries will surely get your attention!
In addition to crying, babies can respond physically to a mother’s touch or voice, so spend time touching your pregnant belly and speaking to your baby.