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You may think of him floating peacefully there in the womb, existing in a kind of dreamlike state, just waiting to be born before his real work begins. After all, he hasn’t yet used his lungs, bonded with his family, or learned to organize a world of shape and color into meaningful objects.
The fetus is waiting, but he’s actually working, too. Especially as the pregnancy progresses, the difference between an unborn baby and a newborn gets smaller and smaller.
It’s helpful to remember that by the third trimester, that baby is just as curious, active, and engaged in his environment as he will be as a newborn — his environment might be more limited than the big outside world, but he’s got plenty to learn, and plenty to do:
- For one thing, all that kicking isn’t just for fun. A baby in her 3rd trimester (especially before she runs out of wiggle room inside mom) can kick with up to 10.5 pounds of force. That kicking is strengthening her muscles, but it does more than that, Motherly reports: “Kicks and movement stimulate molecular interactions that prompt the cells and tissues of the embryo to build a ‘functionally robust yet malleable skeleton.’ This means that kick may be telling the body it needs to have a bone covered in cartilage at the joint, or a jab over there may send the signal to increase bone strength.” She’s not just growing in there; she’s strength training.
- She’s also hard at work practicing the skills that will help keep her safe when she’s born.By 20 weeks, babies in the womb can cry— silently — and they do, when they’ve been startled. Her mom can’t comfort her at the moment, but it’s the most important way a newborn has to alert her mother to her needs. She’s also learned to self-soothe by sucking her thumb, a habit that will help her learn to nurse and form a close bond with mom — the person she needs to be closest to in order to feel safe.
- She’s taking in huge amounts of information about the world outside the womb, so that when she’s born, she’ll have a head start understanding it. She already recognizes her mom’s language and prefers it to foreign languages. She’s getting used to certain sounds and recognizing patterns: If you’ve been playing her the same song every day, she’ll love to listen to it when she’s born.
- Just because the baby’s umbilical cord is doing its job doesn’t mean she’s not working hard getting ready to learn how to eat. As early as 16 weeks, she is already getting used to some of the most common flavors in mom’s diet. Later on, the same tastes that she sensed in the amniotic fluid, she’ll also recognize in the breastmilk. And she’s learning how to swallow, as she drinks the amniotic fluid around her for practice.
It’s funny. As much as these babies knows about us, we don’t know much about them. We’re getting ready, too, of course. The mother’s body is preparing to give the baby everything she needs: her nesting instincts have surfaced, her body’s making milk … but in some ways, she’s waiting more passively than the baby is for their eventual meeting.