I read the following lede sentence today in an article about 4-dimensional (4D) imaging and fetuses (don’t worry, this isn’t headed into a political rant on transvaginal ultrasound): “Growing into a fully formed human being is a long process, and scientists have found that unborn babies not only hiccup, swallow and stretch in the womb, they yawn too. “
Having read it, all I could think was: Sounds like what everyone was doing after Thanksgiving dinner, not just the fetuses. Think back to the table on Thursday night and who wasn’t stretching, hiccupping and yawning, having downed enough food and suffered enough drama to fuel the space shuttle to Mars and back? What’s just funny is that even unborn babies are overwhelmed by the food coma, family dynamics and predictable jokes, or at least that’s my interpretation.
OK, it’s probable that the 4D scans of the babies weren’t done on Thanksgiving, but it would have made the story even more incredible, right? As if it has to be. It is unbelievable to imagine that medical imaging has come so far that we can not only see babies in 4D, but distinguish between whether they are just opening and closing their mouths or demonstrating that they are thoroughly bored with the day’s proceedings. I recall the first in utero real-time imaging through ultrasound, which I got to watch close up when it took place back in the 1970s led by my very own father, who invented the first machine for this use. Back then it was a grainy if distinguishable picture that led to heated debates about whether “that” was the umbilical cord or evidence of an unborn but well-endowed son-to-be. Today, with 4D imaging like this we could probably tell what religion the kid is.
The research that led to the yawning finding came from scientists’ debate as to whether there are such differences in mouth opening in utero and whether knowing could give doctors important medical information. Of course, there is no discussion of whether babies are just yawning out of nine months of boredom, having been unable to exit the room when mom turns on The Real Housewives of New Jersey or, god forbid, Fox News. No word on whether the latter causes in utero vomiting.
The key researcher in the study, Nadja Reissland of Durham University’s department of Psychology, said in the article that “the function and importance of yawning in fetuses is still unknown, but the findings suggest it may be linked to fetal development and could provide a further indication of the health of the unborn baby. Unlike us, fetuses 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.”
Another interesting part of the study was that researches found no differences in how often unborn boys and girls yawn. Unfortunately, the study did not elaborate whether the stimuli present at the time of yawning was the same for both sexes. Were the baby boys yawning because they were forced to spend time in the Nordstrom shoe department on Black Friday? Were the girls yawning because the boy fetuses couldn’t stop talking about golf? Who knows, but this is the kind of research that should be funded, as it could fundamentally alter male-female communications in those confusing years after the in utero phase.
I hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving.