Baby’s First Look: Advancements in Prenatal and Infant Technology

Maria D’Antonio

It can take up to three months for a newborn to recognize a familiar face in the distance, according to an article in KidsHealth, but researchers are developing ways to look at a baby well before their birth. There is even the possibly to get a look at their personality while still in the womb.

From ultrasounds to eye tracking, here are just a few advances in the way we understand newborns and developing fetuses.

How would you like your Ultrasound? 2-D, 3-D, or 4-D?

Ultrasounds have been around since the 1950s, according to Sonography.net, so the fundamental technology is not completely new. 4-D ultrasounds were first used in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but they are becoming increasingly common.

Many are used to the 2-D ultrasound, which are the black and white still shots. These ultrasounds are used to identify gender and can better track the development of the baby’s internal organs, according to the website.

Nvate prenatal technology infant technology ultrasound Tobii eye-tracking system prenatal DNA sequencing fetal genome

This is a 3-D ultrasound.
Credit: Baby Faces LLC

2-D ultrasound images may be useful to track the fetus’ internal development, but they cannot provide the bonding experience to the degree that a 3-D and 4-D image can. 3-D ultrasounds provide soon-to-be parents with a more realistic picture of their baby in much better quality. Parents can see facial expressions with a 3-D image, but not with a 2-D one.

The 4-D ultrasound only adds to the bonding experience since 4-D can reveal the baby’s movements. Families can watch the fetus kick or scratch their head.

Sonography.net goes further to state that mothers that have seen the 3-D and 4-D ultrasounds are more likely to adapt a healthier lifestyle than those who had the 2-D scans, though 2-D images also promote maternal bonding. Both are instrumental in prenatal care. 2-D scans are more likely to spot developmental problems, while 3-D and 4-D encourage parental bonding.

See What Baby Sees

Developmental psychology is exactly what it sounds like, the psychology of the development of humans. This field of study also includes infants, but unlike most of the life stages that humans progress through, newborns cannot tell psychologists what is going through their heads. Babies simply stare or cry, but researchers have found ways to study infants, no matter how limited the communication.

Tobii is a company that fosters eye-tracking research. Once the newborn’s visual system has sufficiently developed, scientists can follow the baby’s eye movements, according to the Tobii website. The actual device watches the subject’s eyes as the subject watches the screen. It then records the movements and the results are typically used by researchers. This tool is useful for a number of reasons.

Nvate prenatal technology infant technology ultrasound Tobii eye-tracking system prenatal DNA sequencing fetal genome

The Tobii eye-tracker follows the eyes of an autistic child. The red dots are the parts of the picture the eyes have focused on. Here, the eyes fail to significantly focus on the faces.
Credit: Tobii

It could be useful in the early detection of autism. Newborns, which cannot see anything further than a foot away, prefer to gaze at faces, even if they cannot see detail, according to the Tobii website. Autistic children do not share this preference for faces. The eye tracker can see what the baby spends most of their time focusing on, so theoretically the babies that do not focus on the faces may be autistic. It is not a test, but could provide some clues.

Because eye trackers can follow the eye, the eye-tracking unit can see how eye muscles are developing in infants. Because their vision is rather poor at birth, infants do not always control what they focus on. The eye tracker can follow the growing eye muscles as eye movements become more deliberate as babies gain more control over their eyes.

Nvate prenatal technology infant technology ultrasound Tobii eye-tracking system prenatal DNA sequencing fetal genome

The Tobii eye-tracker follows the eyes of a five-month-old infant. Here, the eyes have focused on either side of the box to follow the movement of the ball across the floor behind the box, instead of following the ball through the box.
Credit: Tobii

Not only is the eye tracker useful in following the physical development of eye muscles, it is useful in tracking the development of the visual system. The human visual system is highly complex, and it isn’t fully developed until a year of age, according to the American Optometric Association. Humans have to learn how to see movement, depth perception, and in three dimensions, not to mention develop eye coordination. Hand-eye coordination comes a bit after eye coordination.

The eye tracker is useful to following this growth. It can follow the baby’s eyes as they watch moving objects, tracking the object and predicting where it will go. When an object moves out of sight under something, like a blanket, the eye tracker can see that older infants will continue to look at the blanket, but the younger ones’ attentions shift to another part of the screen. This type of tracking also gives researchers a glimpse into the cognitive state of an infant.

The Entire Genome: Before Baby’s First Breath

The MIT Technology Review named “prenatal DNA sequencing” as one of the top breakthroughs of 2013. What makes the technology innovative and particularly impressive is that scientists no longer have to touch the fetus to obtain their genetic information. Instead of sampling amniotic fluid or the placenta, doctors can take a blood sample from the mother. Researchers can now not only separate mother and baby DNA, but can also sequence the baby’s DNA.

This is possible because fetal DNA finds itself in the mother’s bloodstream via dead placenta cells, though baby’s DNA is heavily fragmented, according to Jay Shendure, a genome scientist at the University of Washington. Researchers have to piece the DNA together themselves, but it does yield results. Now, using the mother’s blood, parents can find out if their child has Down syndrome or any other extra chromosomes.

Soon, it will be possible to piece together the entire fetal genome, according to Stanford University biophysicist Stephen Quake.

Putting the morality of the sequencing of a fetus’ genome aside, this is one of the most remarkable breakthroughs in fetal technology, according to the MIT Technology Review. Parents will be able see if the baby has genetic diseases and the child’s natural disposition before the baby is even born. Physical traits, such as eye and hair color, are also determined by genes. Although the genetic code is not the final say in who a child will become, this would still be an inside look at a person before they can even see.

There is more research on fetal and infant development to be done, but one thing is for sure, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going on inside their heads before they do.

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