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Now available in most countries except the U.S.
miracle of life that starts with just a single egg and a single
sperm may be even more incredible than we think...
by Stuart Carter
New ultrasound techniques
- 3D and 4D scans are opening up a unique portal on the miracle
of life that starts with just a single egg and a single sperm. With
remarkable findings revealing that the foetus dreams, jumps, sucks
it thumb, open it eyes and reacts to pain far earlier that ever
realised before. The essential senses, hearing and seeing also develop
far earlier that we had ever realised.
It all starts with
a humble sperm – and there are loads of them – around
300 million per ejaculation to be exact – and the largest
cell in the body - the female egg. In 9 months (38 weeks) this single
fused cell will grow to 2 trillion cells with 200 different cell
types – a complex self sustaining human baby.
A sperm can survive
for about 48 hours (yes 48 hours!) and it can take 10 hours to reach
its destination – the female cell waiting in the fallopian
tube - swimming at the mightily impressive rate of 3mm per hour.
Natural selection is as brutal here as anywhere in the outside world
– only a few healthy sperm will make the entire journey and
the first to penetrate the female cell wall will be the winner.
Within 12 hours the nuclei of sperm and egg fuse and the blueprint
for building a new human is complete. The 23rd chromosome determines
the sex of the baby – all the mothers eggs have X chromosomes
and the sperm carry either X or Y in equal proportions. If the X
sperm gets through then it’s a girl and if it is the Y a boy.
Pregnancy is divided
into 3 equal blocks called 'trimesters'. In the first trimester,
up to 9 weeks, the foetus will form a complete human body with limbs,
nerves, organs and muscles. This is the most fragile part of the
pregnancy when the foetus is most at risk. After around 2 months
the whole body begins to move and twitch. The placenta has formed
and has taken over from the yolk sac the job of providing nourishment
for the embryo. The intestines are formed and the foetus can move
its legs and head but the eyes remain fused shut. Even at this early
stage the foetus responds to stimulation – when prodded its
tiny hands will close – and this is the point at which its
own heart beat can be heard with a stethoscope. In fact 4D scans
reveal that the foetus can already suck, yawn and swallow - possibly
all automatic reactions. Is the foetus practicing for when it will
burst in to the real world? At about 9 weeks the foetus starts announcing
its existence with a series of leaps, using the walls of the uterus
like a trampoline. This early on there is still plenty of space
in which to flex its muscles. By the end of the first trimester
everything is in place – ready to develop and grow.
Throughout the 2nd
trimester the limbs start to function more fully. Now there is much
less risk of miscarriage. The fist normal ultrasound scan takes
place around 11-14 weeks to establish an accurate delivery date
and to measure the crown to rump length and make sure everything
is okay. The scan could reveal Downs Syndrome or other genetic abnormalities.
It might also reveal twins. In fact twins are fascinating because
their close bonding starts in the womb where there is close contact
of arms, legs and mouths. Non identical twins are separated by a
membrane as there are two separate placentas. Multiple births run
in families – if your mother had twins then you are more likely
to have them too. At the fist scan this is always a shock, but also
a delight to the families – especially when they can hear
two distinct heart beats. At 10 weeks the genitals can be clearly
seen, but it is still hard to be sure if it is a boy or a girl.
In a girl the tiny ovaries are already producing her lifetime supply
of eggs and in a boy the rudimentary testicles are already producing
At around 4 months the foetus can
be seen playing with its own umbilical cord – often getting
it wrapped around its body. But it is still very elastic and presents
no danger at this stage. When prodded through the abdomen the baby
squirms – it can bend and twist its fingers, hands, wrists
and toes. The heart has settled to around twice an adults heartbeat
rate – 120-160 bpm.
One of the most important reactions
the baby will have is now developing – the grasping reaction.
It will spend plenty of time practicing by holding on to the umbilical
cord, the other hand, toes, feet and face. In the case of twins
they hold on to each other. Digestive and urinary tracts are in
full swing with the baby swallowing and circulating its own amniotic
fluid – breathing the fluid in and out of its liquid filled
lungs all the time. This is around the time the baby’s mother
will feel its movements for the first time.
The eyes were previously
thought to remain fused until around 24 weeks. But 4D ultrasound
scans have revealed babies opening their eyes by the 16th week.
It’s dark in there but the eyes are still not fully functional
anyway. By the 18th week the foetus has reached the half way stage.
At 21 weeks, the end of the second trimester, everything is fully
formed if not fully grown. At this stage a few babies can survive
outside the womb but most would still die or suffer from severe
difficulties. But most will remain where they are and put on a bit
of weight and practice some vital skills for survival in the outside
The mother is becoming
increasingly aware of the changes happening inside her body. Her
baby can taste and smell the amniotic fluid in which it lives. Doctors
know that the amniotic fluid can taste of garlic, onion and even
curry. Too much spice and the foetus will stick out its tongue!
And it can hear not only what goes on inside the womb, but also
the rest of its mother’s body and sounds from the outside
world. The most dominant sound is the mother’s heartbeat,
followed by the gurgling in her stomach. Strangely it can hear it
father’s voice best if he is close – the lower frequency
waves can penetrate the abdomen wall more easily.
Credit - David Barlow
It is thought that the foetus can sense
pain from 24 weeks on – and possibly even earlier. This is
also the time the baby could be born and stand a chance of surviving
– and it is also the latest time that abortions can be carried
out in the UK or the USA. The baby can now open its eyes regularly
– but only the very brightest light can get through the abdomen
wall. At 25 weeks the eyes are fully formed but the pigment will
only mature when it is born – the pigment cannot properly
form without light. The baby will drink 2 litres a day of amniotic
fluid. It serves no nutritional value but does help perfect the
art of swallowing – so important for later survival.
Foetuses spends around 90% of their
time asleep but when they are awake they can be full of beans, often
exhibiting the ‘startle’ reflex where it throws it arms
and legs out if it hears a loud noise. The baby has been hard at
work sucking its thumb since the 11th week. By the 25th week it
will suck its fingers, toes - in fact anything it can get hold of.
At week 26 it is possible to hear the foetuses own heartbeat by
pressing your ear to the mother’s abdomen. Its heartbeat is
twice as fast as it mother’s. And it ‘breathes’
just like a newborn, except that its lungs are filling with fluid
rather than air. The air sacs inside the lungs are still closed
and will not open until the moment of birth.
By the 7th month the
baby kicks and hiccups just like a new born. And when it is asleep
4D scans reveal that it experiences REM – rapid eye movement
- as far as we are aware a clear indication of dreaming. What is
it dreaming of – its mother’s voice, her heart beat
or the loud noises outside? We don't know.
The cry of a new born
baby already exhibits some of the speech features and rhythms of
its parents. A French newborn baby prefers to look at a French speaking
person and a Russian newborn at a Russian speaker. Incredible but
true. And fast music can stimulate the foetus. Music similar to
the heartbeat rhythm will have a soothing effect but faster music
will agitate it. At 32 weeks a foetus can recognise a piece of music
and move in time to it. Also it can remember things extremely well.
If its mother has watched a lot of one soap opera – after
it is born it is more likely to be calm and quiet when that programme
is playing on the TV. So our bad TV habits start before we are even
By the 9th month the
baby inverts itself so the head is pointing down ready for its exit
into the big wide world. The baby is putting on weight – mostly
fat – with less and less space to move around inside it mother.
How the birth process starts is still a mystery but we know it has
something to do with the placenta. At some point the placenta stops
the release of progesterone and this somehow kicks off contractions
in the uterus wall. During the first phase of labour the cervix
expands to allow the baby to pass through. Birth is a particular
problem for humans – our brains and therefore our heads are
large and this is the trickiest part to get out of our mothers.
Large amounts of adrenalin are released inside the baby to keep
its heart going just in case the umbilical cord is squashed and
the oxygen supply is cut off. The adrenalin also helps kick start
the lungs for a lifetime of work.
Credit - David Barlow
Finally after 9 months
the baby is thrust into a bright, noisy world. For the fist time
the baby has to breathe and feed on its own. As its incredible odyssey
inside the womb comes to an end another journey begins – the
journey of life.