New information on the behaviour of babies in the womb may lead to "more understanding" about how children adapt to social situations, regulate stimulation and take a bottle or breast when born.
The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology, found babies in the later stages of pregnancy are capable of touching their lower face and mouth, indicating healthy brain function.
This effect is likely to be evolutionally determined, preparing the child for life outside the womb.
Building on these findings, future research could lead to more understanding about how the child is prepared prenatally for life, including their ability to engage with their social environment, regulate stimulation and being ready to take a breast or bottle.
– Brian Francis, professor of social statistics at Lancaster University
Babies learn about touch while in the womb and can predict, rather than react to, their own hand movements, new research has shown.
Foetuses in the later stages of gestation increased touching between the lower part of their face and mouth, which scientists say is an "indicator" of healthy brain development.
Psychologists from universities in Durham and Lancaster carried out a total of 60 scans of 15 healthy foetuses at monthly intervals between 24 weeks' and 36 weeks' gestation. They used 4D imaging to create scans of life inside the womb.
Scientists have shown conclusively for the first time that unborn babies yawn repeatedly in the womb.
But it is not because they are sleepy or bored. The most likely explanation is that foetal yawning is an essential process linked to brain development.
While it is well known that foetuses open and close their mouths, experts have disagreed over whether or not they are actually yawning.
The new study, using high resolution ultrasound footage, confirms that they really do yawn, and do it often.
Use of video with kind permission from Dr Wolfgang Moroder:
Dr Nadja Reissland, from the University of Durham, who led the study of seven male and eight female foetuses from six to nine months of pregnancy, said: "The results of this study demonstrate that yawning can be observed in healthy foetuses and extends previous work on foetal yawning.
"Unlike us, foetuses do not yawn contagiously, nor do they yawn because they are sleepy. Instead, the frequency of yawning in the womb may be linked to the maturing of the brain early in gestation."