Babies' love of looking at faces develops while they're still in the womb
Babies' preferences for looking at faces develops while they are still in the womb.
Child development researchers have long known that infants are more interested in looking at faces than other objects. Now, brand new research published in Current Biology has shown that this preference for faces actually develops in the womb.
By projecting light through the uterine wall of mums-to-be, a UK research team found that babies at 34 weeks gestation will turn their heads to look at face-like images over other shapes. The findings are the first to show that it's possible to explore visual perception and cognition in babies before they are born.
Vincent Reid, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University, explains that technical barriers had prevented earlier studies of foetal vision and behaviour in the womb. But Reid and his colleagues realised those challenges could be overcome and the new work was made possible thanks to high-quality 4D ultrasound:
"We have shown the foetus can distinguish between different shapes, preferring to track face-like over non-face-like shapes. This preference has been recognised in babies for many decades, but until now exploring foetal vision has not been attempted."
The team tested the responses of 39 babies to face-like patterns of light presented to them in both upright and inverted orientations. The projected light moved across their field of vision while researchers watched the babies' reactions using 4D ultrasound. Professor Reid explains that the ultrasound movies showed that the developing babies turned their heads to look more often at face-like stimuli that were upright than those that were presented to them upside down:
"There was the possibility that the foetus would find any shape interesting due to the novelty of the stimulus. If this was the case, we would have seen no difference in how they responded to the upright and upside-down versions of the stimuli. But it turned out that they responded in a way that was very similar to infants."
The findings suggest that babies' preference for faces begins in the womb, with no learning or experience after birth required. Professor Reid says that the findings also confirm that babies have enough light to see and have visual experiences in the womb. However, he discourages pregnant mothers from shining bright lights into their bellies.