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The feeling of a kicking fetus is perhaps one of the more fun parts of having a baby, but these movements serve a purpose well beyond letting you know that that little thing is in there!

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Sources:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763418300538
https://www.nature.com/articles/pr200837
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7259716
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4767024/
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-8749.1997.tb07390.x
https://www.who.int/childgrowth/mgrs/en/
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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fetal_movements_3D_Ultrasound_Dr._Wolfgang_Moroder.theora.ogv
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/father-and-mother-get-wonder-when-their-baby-or-fetus-kicking-her-belly-mom-husband-gm1153469192-313287774
https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/medical-anatomy-poster-with-human-body-systems-gm937641398-256453231
https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/illustration-of-human-senses-gm948490802-258948165
https://www.videoblocks.com/video/adorable-newborn-baby-wearing-white-rompers-and-lying-on-blue-blanket-hu-o9wf4mjc7fl1qe
https://www.videoblocks.com/video/full-shot-of-adorable-caucasian-baby-girl-crawling-on-all-fours-on-carpet-in-living-room-at-home-trying-to-stand-up-but-falling-on-her-back-then-rolling-over-to-crawl-again-hxy90x1nejvdshyav
https://www.videoblocks.com/video/happy-african-american-baby-first-steps-hvflj81ynisud4lxe
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Go to Brilliant.org/SciShow to learn how you can take your STEM skills to the next level. [♩INTRO]. The feeling of a kicking fetus is perhaps one of the more fun parts of having a baby.

And these movements serve a purpose well beyond letting you know that that little thing is in there. Like the pilots in Pacific Rim learning to control their giant robotic Jaegers, these movements are evidence that your tiny incipient human’s brain is learning to control its body. When a fetus is in the womb, it’s not just sitting around waiting to be born.

It’s actually working really hard to learn everything it needs to survive in the outside world, including breathing, swallowing, and, of course, moving. There are over six hundred muscles in the human body, which makes for a lot of controls to master. So fetuses need to get an early start, and the womb is the perfect place to get some practice in.

The first fetal movements happen around seven weeks after the parent’s last period. Which is pretty early! They consist of slow bending movements of the head and trunk, and eventually simple movements of the arms and legs.

Things start to change at a postmenstrual age of nine to ten weeks. That’s when the fetus starts to move with all the parts of its body, and the directions and speeds of these movements start to vary. These movement patterns are called general movements, and their purpose is to explore all the possible combinations of movements the fetus’s tiny body can make.

These movements generate proprioceptive sensory signals, that is, sensory information about the position and movement of the body. Every possible general movement has its own set of proprioceptive signals, which helps the brain learn what these movements feel like. So not only is the brain sending out all sorts of commands to the muscles in the body, but the body is teaching the brain the consequences of those commands.

The brain is learning what groups of neurons are responsible for what movements. It’s essentially the equivalent of learning to control a Jaeger by flailing your arms and seeing what happens. It doesn’t end there, though.

General movements continue to evolve and change throughout pregnancy and into the first few months after birth. More or less. See, these changes in general movements occur at fairly predictable postmenstrual ages, but are not affected by birth.

Infants who are born prematurely tend to follow the same motor development patterns as their counterparts who are still in utero, but are the same postmenstrual age. It seems like the brain still needs about the same amount of time to learn to control the body, regardless of whether or not it is still in the uterus. It’s not until several months after birth that these general movements are replaced with goal-directed movements, movements used to accomplish specific goals, like rolling over or reaching.

However, there are a few goal-directed movements that have to be learned in the uterus. Sucking and swallowing are vital because they help a newborn eat, and therefore survive. So they have to develop before birth.

Fetuses have to learn to breathe, too, which they seem to do via hiccuping. Other than that, infants tend to learn goal-directed movements in a consistent order after birth, starting with eye tracking and head balance, and advancing to rolling over, grasping objects, crawling, sitting, standing, and eventually walking. Turns out it’s hard work learning to pilot a human body.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! If you want to keep learning, why not make a goal-directed movement over to Brilliant? Brilliant is a problem solving-based website and app with a hands-on approach, with over 60 interactive courses in math, science, and computer science.

And if we’ve got you thinking right now, “You know, I really do want to learn how to pilot a giant robot,” they might be a good place to start. Like their course on algorithm fundamentals, which is all about getting computers to do what you want. Sound close?

Right now, the first 200 people to sign up at Brilliant.org/SciShow will get 20% off the annual Premium subscription. So go forth and design your Jaegers! [♩OUTRO].