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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsIn this section, we're going to be thinking about foetal programming. Following conception, the embryo begins to develop and each embryo follows a unique genetic blueprint. The period of embryonic development is when the basic structures of the body are formed. By nine weeks of gestation, the embryo becomes a foetus and the foetus is thought to be viable as a baby from 24 weeks of pregnancy. Foetal programming refers to the way in which the environment in the womb can affect the development of the foetus and thereby can have a permanent effect on the child. Our understanding about foetal programming emerged as a result of natural disasters such as the Dutch famine during the Second World War.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 secondsDuring this period, food intake was between 400 and 900 calories. And the Dutch famine birth cohort study that was carried out by a number of academics found that the children of pregnant women exposed to famine were more susceptible to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other health problems. Since then we have begun to understand that foetal programming can occur as a result of much more subtle changes to the uterine environment, including more moderate changes to the nutritional or stress state of the mother. This picture shows two babies who were both born full term following normal pregnancies. The baby on the right is, as you can see, much smaller and is underweight.

Skip to 1 minute and 35 secondsThis smaller growth could be due to a range of factors, including the mother's diet, smoking or use of other substances. We now know that low birth weight is associated with higher morbidity and mortality, including inhibited growth and cognitive development and chronic diseases later in life. We have also begun to understand that there are critical periods in terms of foetal development. For example, during the first few weeks of pregnancy, the baby's physical structure is developing in terms of the growth of their arms and legs, which is why the drug thalidomide had an effect on the development of arms and legs only if it was taken early in pregnancy.

Skip to 2 minutes and 16 secondsHowever, organs such as the baby's brain develop throughout the pregnancy and so the consumption of, for example, alcohol and some drugs at any stage during the pregnancy can affect the development of the foetal brain. Although the development follows a unique genetic blueprint, we've recently begun to understand about epigenetics. Epigenetics means on top of genetics and involves chemical groups being added to the DNA, which then control whether a particular gene is turned on or off. Epigenetic changes of this sort occur as a result of the impact of the environment, such as for example, our diet and exposure to stress. Such epigenetic changes sometimes last a lifetime, although some can also be changed by later experience.

Skip to 3 minutes and 6 secondsEpigenetic changes of this sort can occur during pregnancy as a consequence of both diet and stress. Watch the next video, which shows how what happens in the womb can last a lifetime, and then read the article, which describes the process of bonding with the unborn baby. It would be great if you could then share some of your thoughts with your colleagues on the discussion area.

Foetal development defined

In this video we examine the three key stages of foetal development (i.e. the three trimesters of pregnancy). We describe the concept of ‘foetal programming’ and the implications of such programming for the development of the unborn baby. We examine what has been learnt about the impact of early natural disasters on the development of the foetus, and how this led to the epidemiological studies of Professor David Barker. His work developed our understanding about foetal programming on the long-term health and wellbeing of the child and adult particularly in terms of conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

We describe the way in which this happens as a result of the environment programming the structure of the body and the functioning of key organs, during critical periods of development.

In the next block we will go on to examine recent research about the way in which the maternal mind can have both a direct and indirect impact on the developing foetus.


Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders for the image used in this film, and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. As we have been unable to do this, we would be grateful to be notified of any attributions that should be incorporated in future runs of this course.

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This video is from the free online course:

Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join:

  • Why babies need experiences
    Why babies need experiences
    video

    Watch this video. Professor Jane Barlow introduces the concepts of experience-expectant and experience-dependent brain development.

  • Bonding with the unborn baby
    Bonding with the unborn baby
    article

    Read this article about how parents starts to bond with their child even while the child is in the womb

  • Interview with Tessa Baradon: Part 1
    Interview with Tessa Baradon: Part 1
    video

    In this interview Professor Jane Barlow talks to Tessa Baradon who is a parent-infant psychotherapist and Clinical Director of the Anna Freud Centre.

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