IT WAS HECTIC … hair-raising … frantic … fantastic! It was your busiest, growingest, most remarkable time ever.
And you remember nothing about it!
For nine months, you floated like an astronaut in the warm, watery, weightless world of your mother’s womb … while your body went through more mind-boggling changes than it would in all the years to come.
You were tiny, vulnerable and defenceless … but way too comfortable to let it bother you. You didn’t know what your mum looked like, but her strong, regular heartbeat assured you that some bigger person was meeting your needs. And your own life-support system – the placenta – kept you fed with oxygen and food.
But all that changed one day when the walls of your world began to squeeze you. The soft cushions that had been your bed began pulsing and beating against you, pushing you down through the dark tunnel.
You were bombarded with noise … cold … light! And then – lo and behold – you BREATHED!
Congratulations. You’ve just been born!
A mystery unwrapped
We humans have always wanted to know about our life before birth. Endless myths and superstitions used to surround the
subject. And we still haven’t got all the answers. The mystery remains.
But today, medical science has succeeded as never before in tracing the many small wonders that occur during those nine months in the womb. Now we know in detail what you were like when you were being formed in secret.
So come on! Let’s celebrate with you your very own miracle …
Your personal history begins when a sperm from your dad plunges headlong into an egg inside your mum. For a day or so you are just one single cell, no bigger than a grain of sugar.* But that cell contains as much information as 1000 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica – a vast gene databank printed on a tiny, tightly coiled one-metre-long thread, called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
This pinpoint of living tissue could sit with ease on the tip of a needle, and it weighs far less than the smallest feather. Yet it contains a library of information exclusively about you – your sex, height, personality, your eye and hair colour, your potential (or otherwise) at sport and music, your voice, your creativity, the shape of your little toe …
You’re a mighty midget – all programmed and raring to go. Nobody can change your databank now.
(*All the egg cells needed to provide the entire population of the world could be contained in a small bucket. And the sperm needed to fertilize those five billion eggs could fit inside a thimble!)
Your first week
What does one cell do, if it wants to become a real human being? Answer: it grows … by dividing! One cell splits into two, two into four, four into eight, and so on …
But that’s not all. You’ve already embarked on your first trip – down the fallopian tube – fed as you go by nutrient cells (your own packed lunch). You arrive after about three days, all 64 or so cells of you, in your mother’s womb. And you take up permanent residence … making a cosy burrow in the soft, spongy wall. (They call this event implantation.)
As a new lodger, you immediately organise things to suit yourself. And you send your mum the first clue that you’re there – by producing a hormone that, in just one week, will stop her next menstrual period.
Even more importantly, on day six your placenta starts producing another chemical (IDO – indoleamine dioxygenase) – suppressing your mum’s immune system, which would otherwise send out an alarm: “Repel boarders!” and spearhead an attack on the ‘foreign’ tissue in her body.
Phew! You’re safe …
Meanwhile, your cells are making their separate plans in preparation for the most crazy-busy three weeks you’ll ever know…
You’re now a month old, and the one cell you began with has become millions! Blood cells have formed, and made their way to your blood vessels. And you’re now pumping this amazing red fluid through your own body – and through your umbilical cord to the placenta.
This cord is a two-way lifeline to your mum, allowing your blood to move in both directions – there and back again!
Your eyes, ears and mouth have begun to develop. And your brain is opening for business – along with your spinal cord and nervous system. (Your brain waves can actually be detected from about six weeks on!) And the world’s most efficient communications network is under construction.
Muscles and bones are appearing and joining up. Your kidneys and liver are taking shape. In fact, during this hectic month you’ve begun work on all the major parts of your body.
Your placenta keeps making the hormone that’s now stopped your mum’s period. And a blood or urine test will confirm what she already suspects – you’re THERE!
They say she’s six weeks pregnant – even though you’ve only been around for four. That’s because people out there work out their dates from the first day of her last period.
This is such an exciting time – but it’s also one of the most critical times of your life. Organs are developing so quickly that any threat can damage them – chemicals like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana … and even prescribed medicines.
BACK DURING YOUR FIRST WEEK of life, a miracle happened. Your 100-or-so watery cells somehow agreed among themselves to go in different directions.
That wouldn’t be so strange if they were each different. But they’re not. They’re identical. Your very first cell carried instructions inside it for the future ‘you’ – all spelled out in chromosomes and genes. And as you grew, every cell in your developing body received exactly the same instructions.
So how did they know to become different parts of your body? After all, there’s a whopping difference between your brain and your toenail!
According to Dr Landrum Shettles (the man who first discovered the difference between male and female cells): “When a certain number of cells congregate, they begin passing messages among themselves. The cells seem to be influenced in their behaviour by the company they keep.
“When things get too crowded in one area, some cells simply take off for the ‘frontier’, to new areas of development – to the site, for example, of a future liver, sex gland or finger. Some cells are better frontiersmen than others, although why this is we still don’t know …
“Groups of outward-bound cells, all somehow of the same mind, move to specific areas along ‘roadways’ made of supportive proteins and sugars. When they get to where they want to settle, the enzyme secretions cease, forward movement stops, and organ formation begins …
“If I transplant a cell from a liver-making colony to the site of a kidney-under-construction, the liver cell will soon give up its old identity and become one of the fellows – that is, just another kidney cell.”
Cells that talk to each other? Whatever next?
Eight weeks pregnant
You’ve been around for six weeks now – but from top-to-toe you’re still less than two centimetres (20 millimetres) long!
Your head is taking shape (it’s mostly brain). Stubby little fingers and toes are appearing. And … wait for it … you’ve begun moving! Jaw, arms, legs – your muscles are all go-go-go, even though your mum knows nothing about them. (An ultrasound scan can pick up such movements at this stage.) When you move, it’s total – everything moves! – and controlling different parts of your body will come later.
Sex cells have reached the area where they’ll stay, and your sex glands are forming.
The chambers of your heart are complete, that miniature pump now beating sturdily. And guess what? You even have eyelids!
Although you’re still so very, very tiny, every organ you’ll have at birth is now installed! (Which is why you’re now called a ‘foetus’ – Latin for ‘little one’.)
You’re at last beginning to look like a baby … exquisite, and oh so delicate!
A WOMB, IN OTHER WORDS
THE ENGLISH MEDICAL WORD ‘UTERUS’ comes from Latin. Other ancient words have left their mark on our language too. Like the Greek word for womb – hysteros. That’s why we call the removal of the womb a ‘hysterectomy’.
Words used in other languages give some idea of what the womb is and how it works for you. In Maori there’s whare tangata – ‘the house of man’, and takotoranga tamariki – ‘the place where you keep the child’. Samoans and Tongans call the womb manava, and in Tokelauan it’s fale tama.
The Hindi term bacha dani means ‘baby’s nest’.
A doctor can pick up your heart-beat now – on an electronic gizmo called a ‘doppler’. So your mum probably knows for sure that you’re there. But she has no idea how incredibly busy you’ve been over the past few weeks.
If only she could see your cute little face … your large eyes … your button nose … your shapely lips … your tiny little fingernails …
You’re getting the hang of moving certain parts of your body – instead of everything. You can squint now, and swallow, and pucker your mouth, and frown. You’re sensitive to touch on your lips, eyelids and the palms of your hands – and you may already be in the habit of sucking your thumb!
You’re six or eight centimetres long by now – a regular little Tom Thumb. And you can even produce a smile. If you’re a boy, your penis is taking shape. If you’re a girl, your vagina and womb are appearing.
You can pass urine now. It joins the fluid in the ‘amniotic sac’ – the watery bag you’re floating in. But there’s no risk of pollution – the placenta is constantly recycling and purifying that fluid.
By now you’re beginning to make an impression. Even though you weigh only a 100gms, you’re probably 15cm or more in length – and you’re showing as a slight bulge in your mum’s profile.
You have fingerprints. Teeth have developed in your gums. And you’re learning some curious drink habits, swallowing the amniotic fluid in which you swim. You may be a moderate sipper, taking in just 10mls an hour – or a real boozer at 90mls!
There’s fine downy hair (lanugo) all over your body, but most of it’ll be gone by your birthday.
The rest of your body is growing to catch up with your head. You move around, gracefully and vigorously, inside your ‘inner space capsule’ – but your mum probably can’t feel you yet. She may not know you’ve been very busy kicking your legs, making a fist and turning your head in there.
BABY SURVIVAL KIT
IT USED TO BE THOUGHT THAT the ‘placenta’ was part of the mother. In fact, it’s the property of the baby, and attaches itself to the mother’s body. Packed full of blood vessels, it grows and expands over the lining of the womb.
And for you, the unborn baby, it works like lungs, kidneys and stomach – all rolled into one. How come? By just touching your mother’s blood vessels in the womb’s wall, it filters food and oxygen from your mum to you, and passes your wastes back into your mum’s bloodstream.
Yet your mum’s blood and your blood never mix!
What’s even more fascinating is that through the placenta your mum is able to pass other things on to you. Immunity against certain infectious diseases (like measles) for example. Incredible – right?
It’s been 18 weeks since you got the starter’s gun – and your mum can most likely feel you moving inside her. Just little flickerings, perhaps, but enough to get her bubbling with excitement – and awe.
You’ve got eyelashes now, but your eyes are still closed. (They’ll open up around seven months.) And your head is starting to grow hair. Your ears have begun hearing, and you’re getting used to your mum’s heartbeat and voice – plus other sounds that she has around her: maybe your dad’s voice, the TV, or music.
And when a door slams, you jump!
By the way, you’re beginning to practice something new: if anything touches your lips, you’ll push them forward – you’re getting ready to master the art of sucking.
Oh, and you’ve got nipples now.
As week has followed week, you’ve been growing and learning fast. You now weigh a bit more than a pack of butter – and from head to toe you’re something like 35cm long.
You’ve developed sleeping habits. You’ve learned how to squirm around in your mum’s womb until you’re comfortable. You can grab hold of things – like your own umbilical cord. You can even swim and turn underwater somersaults.
But to make sure you don’t get water-logged, you have – very cleverly – produced a waxy, cheesy, whitish goo (called vernix) that coats your skin. It also has vitamin E to help fight infection if your skin receives a nick when you’re being born. (Pharmaceutical companies are trying to copy it because they can’t make a better skin cream!)
Your skin’s a bit wrinkled, but over the next few months layers of fat will fill you out. In fact, you’re looking very much like you will at birth. Just a bit smaller and leaner, that’s all.
Your lungs and breathing apparatus haven’t yet developed properly. And if you were born now, it would be pretty hard going – you’d need heaps of expert help. But, even so, you’d have a fair chance of surviving.
FEW PEOPLE HAVE EVER SEEN A living human during the early weeks of its life. Paul Rockwell of Leonard Hospital, New York, is one person who has. During an operation to save a woman’s life, he was handed a tiny baby. He reports:
“The embryo sac was intact and transparent. Within the sac was a tiny (1cm-to-2cm long) human male swimming extremely vigorously in the amniotic fluid while still attached to the wall by the umbilical cord.
“This tiny human was perfectly developed with fingers, feet and toes.
It was almost transparent, and the delicate arteries and veins were prominent to the ends of the fingers.
“The baby was extremely alive, and swam about the sac approximately one time per second with a natural swimmer’s stroke. This tiny human did not look like all the photos and drawings and models of ‘embryos’ which I have seen, nor did it look like the few embryos I have been able to observe since then – obviously, because this one was still alive.
“When the sac was opened, the tiny human immediately lost its life …”
And still you’re growing! This month, and the next two, give you the chance to build up your strength and health. You’re getting ready to leave home!
If he puts his ear on your mum’s tummy, your dad might be able to hear your heartbeat. However, if you happen to be doing a somersault at the time, he might just get a kick in the head! Your mum’s well-and-truly used to your wriggling by now. And sometimes she might even have felt you hiccup.
You’ve got eyebrows at last, eyelids that open and close, and eyes that actually take in the shadowy shapes you can see.
Your brain is all-systems-go. You’re mastering the art of breathing and swallowing. And if it wasn’t for all that water around you, you could probably cry.
It’s still a bit premature for your birthday, though …
Remember how you learnt to move your lips when you were five months old? Well, now you’re doing it better. Not exactly sucking yet – but if something touches your lower lip, your tongue moves out along it. You’re ready to respond to soft stroking by your mother’s nipple.
Your skin is now smooth and pink, thanks to the fat you’ve been putting on (which will help protect you in the cooler world outside). But things are getting a bit cramped now – what with all the growing up and filling out you’ve been doing. And there’s no longer enough free space for your acrobatics!
Someone’s gonna have to DO something – and SOON!
HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME?
PEOPLE HAVE LONG BEEN intrigued by stories of things apparently heard and learnt while still in the womb. A Canadian conductor, Boris Brett, was struck by the fact that, during his youth, he could play certain pieces – sight unseen. “I’d be conducting a score for the first time and, suddenly, the cello line would jump out at me; I’d know the flow of the piece even before I turned the page of the score.
“One day I mentioned this to my mother, who is a professional cellist. When she heard what the pieces were, the mystery solved itself. All the scores I knew sight unseen were ones she had played while she was pregnant with me.”
There are other musicians – Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Rubinstein, for example – who are convinced that children discover music before birth. Just a nice idea? Seems not. There’s plenty of hard evidence.
Auckland’s own researcher, (late) Sir William Liley found out why it can be such a pain going to concerts when you’re pregnant. From the 25th week, a child in the womb literally jumps in rhythm to the beat of the drums!
And what of the musical tastes of the unborn? It seems they prefer single instruments, like the flute, rather than a full-on orchestra – or rock music!
Other researchers claim that babies can actually remember stories their mothers read out loud to them before they were born! And that’s not all. According to British psychologist, Clifford Olds, “the baby can distinguish between the mother’s voice and that of a strange woman reading the same story.”
You’ve been busy this last month making final adjustments. You’ve got rid of some of that waxy coating on your skin, and you’ve grown your fingernails longer. (They may even need to be trimmed when you are born, so you don’t scratch yourself.)
Your eyes are blue (or maybe grey), and that colour will last until you’ve been out in the light for a few months.
You’ve squirmed yourself into an upside-down position (that’s the easiest way to get out), and you’ve got almost no room to move.
Enough is enough! It’s time to step out on your own …
When all is ready, you give your mum the green light – that’s right, you yourself trigger off her labour! Her womb muscles tighten, and her entrance way gradually opens in preparation for your journey down your mum’s vagina and into the outside world.
Oh, and the water that surrounded you in the amniotic sac? It’s gone!
The pressure’s now on, and your mum works hard to assist your departure. Slowly-slowly-slowly you move down this birth canal … bidding farewell to your warm, wet, familiar home.
CAREFULLY PUT TOGETHER
“YOU MADE ALL THE DELICATE inner parts of my body, and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvellous – how well I know it.
“You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in my mother’s womb. You knew I was there – you saw me before I was born.”
KING DAVID – PSALM 139, THE BIBLE
You suddenly find yourself in a strange and alien world – a world that’s oh-so-noisy and bright and dry – and it’s 20 degrees colder than the one you’ve always known!
What’s more, you’re probably tired and hungry.
No wonder you cry!
But even that crying is part of the miracle. You must take your first breath – the oxygen you need must now come from the air around you. So you fill your lungs, clear them of mucous, and sample the earth’s atmosphere for the very first time.
While you’re doing this, a tiny valve inside your heart (between the upper chambers) closes all by itself – ensuring that blood now circulates around your lungs (instead of taking the shortcut it used to, back in the womb).
YOU’VE ARRIVED! And as a finishing touch, your umbilical cord is now cut.
You’re on your own, baby! Well … not entirely. Because there’s a fair chance you have the proudest mum and dad in the world.
Compared with these other huge humans, you’re still small and defenceless. You’re stark naked, can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t ask for help. And you look with eyes that don’t understand what they see.
There’s no way you could cope on your own …
But, on the other hand, you’re not totally helpless. You’ve got an amazing list of survival skills – all those things you’ve been practising for months now: sucking, swallowing, grabbing hold, hanging on, kicking, crying out, and so much more.
And as an added precaution, you’ve been training someone special to love you. You haven’t spent the past nine months just growing like a vegetable. You’ve bonded yourself to one of those huge humans in a way that just can’t be measured.
She’s totally in your power. Your wish is her command. One look, one squawk, one gurgle, one grunt gets you just about anything you want!
Yes, there’s every chance you’ve got it MADE …
And on this same date, every year, for the rest of your life … you’ll celebrate again your own personal miracle.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!