Can Babies Cry in the Womb?

“Did you hear that?” my friend said, excitedly gesturing to her seven-months-pregnant belly, “The baby just cried!”

I wasn’t going to ruin my friend’s excitement by telling her that I’d heard the rumblings of intestinal gas– not the cry of an unborn baby. But I did doubt her claims. It seemed impossible for a fetus to cry audibly. I politely said that I didn’t hear the cry, but acknowledged that it must be nice to hear such a hallmark sound emanating from an unborn infant.

My skepticism wasn’t unfounded, but, as it turns out, my friend’s idea of a crying fetus was not entirely unrealistic. Limited evidence suggests that babies actually do engage in active, albeit silent, crying while still in the womb. This milestone in fetal development helps to prepare babies for actual crying after birth.

Scientists found that, when exposed to a low noise, many unborn babies would cry in distress. The fetuses would turn their heads, open their mouths and inhale a small amount of amniotic fluid. The babies would then exhale while grimacing in distress. This behavior– clearly recognizable as a cry– begins as early as the 28th week of gestation.

It’s no surprise that babies start this practice-crying before birth. Other newborn behaviors, like suckling, sleeping, and responding to sound occur months before a baby is full-term. Pregnancy is not only a time for a fetus to physically mature, but also to develop the behaviors necessary for survival after they leave the womb.

But could my friend have actually heard her baby crying before he was born? I stand by my original thinking: probably not. Before air enters a baby’s lungs, there is no conceivable way that he can exhale air, using his vocal cords to express his budding signs of distress. While I acknowledge that babies develop a crying reflex before birth, I still think that gas bubbles were a more likely cause of any audible “crying” in the womb.

Resource Used: Gringas, J. Archives of Disease in Childhood, September 2005; 90:415-18.

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