Alright, let’s admit it- babies are pretty freakin’ cute. However, as you stare into those big, uncomprehending eyes, you might think to yourself: “You’re cute but you’re pretty darn useless” and sure, compared to you, they are. You can grip and manipulate things without clunky movements and you can even walk!

Today, I’m going to share some studies about the psychology of foetuses and neonates that may surprise you. Also, I will be sure to include some photos of cute babies.

  1. Infants can recognise language in the womb (DeCasper & Spence, 1986)

Baby with pacifier

In neonatal psychology, there is an experimental technique called the ‘sucking paradigm’. An infant will suck on a pacifier, sucking more or less in response to familiar and novel stimuli. In DeCasper & Spence’s study, mothers read Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat twice a day for the last month and a half of pregnancy. After birth, the child was placed in the sucking paradigm and changes in the rate of sucking switched a recording of their mother reading either Cat in the Hat or a novel story, The King, the Mice, and the Cheese. DeCasper & Spence found that infants were more likely to produce a rate of sucking that would produce their mother’s voice (or they would produce a rate of sucking that would not play the novel story). While some may argue that this is simply showing a preference for the mother’s voice, which would not explain why they would not listen to the novel story, which was still told by their mother.

  1. Foetuses prefer face shapes (Johnson & Morton, 1991; Reid et al. (as yet unpublished))
The face-like, top heavy stimulus
The face-like, top heavy stimulus
And the cuteness I promised
And the cuteness I promised

How dark would you say the womb is? Well, the answer might surprise you. Del Guidice (2011) found that the light levels in the womb are similar to those of an interior room on a clear, sunny day. The foetus develops an optic nerve by 9 weeks old and while the eyelids are fused shut until 22 weeks, the foetus can still ‘see’. The two studies I have mentioned above have shown that a foetus will prefer a top-heavy three shape configuration, one that most resembles the structure of the human face. In the as yet unpublished Reid study (something I know about because he delivered my lectures on this particular topic), they found that foetuses would turn towards a ‘face’ configuration and turn away from a non-face configuration. Even without seeing an actual human face, a foetus can identify the basic configuration and appears to prefer it.

  1. A foetus has a sense of balance
I hope this image of a baby elephant falling over just makes your day.
I hope this image of a baby elephant falling over just makes your day.

The sense of balance is developed around five weeks into the pregnancy. A foetus will attempt to counterbalance movement so it remains in an optimal position- if a foetus kicks especially hard when you lie on your back, it’s because your spine is invading its space and it can’t find a position to comfortably lie. Yao et al. (1990) showed that modulation of the mother’s abdomen caused the foetus to constantly attempt to right itself in a process called ballottement. Contrary to what you might believe, the foetus doesn’t just float in your abdomen for nine months; it will ensure that it is in a comfortable position as you go about your day to day life.

Foetal and neonatal psychology is a fascinating topic and if it something you are interested in, I urge you to go and find out more. I’ve only really shared the tip of the iceberg with you here but if you find any interesting studies, please do share them with me!

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