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Unborn babies love human faces. But why does that matter?


Gagliardi Images | Shutterstock

Anna O'Neil - published on 09/03/17

Maybe the baby, in his own way, is as anxious to see my face as I am to see his.

By the third trimester, the fetus is getting more and more aware of the world outside the womb. He’s been able to hear his mother’s voice since he was 18 weeks old, and he’s able to see the light that filters through the walls of the womb only a few weeks later.

If an unborn baby can see light, and we can do a 4D ultrasound and get a really clear idea of the baby’s reaction, then scientists got curious–would the baby be drawn toward a face-like configuration of lights? Yes, it turns out. Researcher Vincent Reid and his colleagues observed unborn babies very frequently, turning their heads towards three dots of light that were shined through the uterine wall. The light was intended to mimic a rudimentary face pattern, with two dots on top, like eyes, and one centered below them, where a mouth would be.

And it’s not just that they’re interested in dots. The babies were “more than twice as likely” to follow that pattern than when they inverted the shape of the dots, so that the two “eye” lights were on the bottom. The upside-down triangle was just not doing it for them.

We’ve known for a while that newborns are drawn to human faces, although their vision is very poor. They don’t see details, just dark and light spots that indicate the mother’s eyes and mouth, as long as she’s no further than a foot away. And as for babies born prematurely, they’re just as interested in faces as infants who reach full term. It’s just that some assumed that the baby learned the preference outside of the womb. That’s no longer a viable theory.

The question, as always, is “why does this all matter?” It’s not like it’s going to be the nail in the pro-choice ideology’s coffin, after all. Everyone already knows plenty about how much unborn babies can do, how much they know, how much like, well, infants post-birth, they are. If ordinary ultrasounds haven’t turned us all pro-life, I doubt this will help.

It still matters to me, though. I’m sitting here feeling my own tiny kid squirming around inside me, almost too faint to notice, except that I’ve been anxiously anticipating these kicks for months. I guess it matters because it says that the baby, in his own way, is as anxious to see my face as I am to see his. It says that he’s getting ready for me, just like I’m getting ready for him. Love begins very small, in actions as simple as eye contact, and that connection grows into something so great it reflects God’s own love, God’s own essence. This baby of mine is already preparing to fall in love, first with me, then with his family, and I hope finally, with his whole human family, especially Christ, who has a human face as well.

Human beings are made for love, and I’m delighted to know that even before my child is born, he’s developing an innate attraction to the human face. It’s exactly the way his life should begin, since, after all, our whole life’s work is to take this initial seed of love, and make it grow into something heavenly.

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