Cross-posted from The Daily Mail
It ought to be the most tranquil of sights – the face of an unborn child in the womb.
But the tiny hand pulled up to the chin reveals that, upsettingly, this baby appears to be under stress.
The remarkable image was taken as part of a study showing unborn children touch their faces more often if their mother has been anxious, helpless or under pressure.
Researchers believe they are picking up on her anxieties – and then trying to soothe them away with the power of touch.
As adults, we do this by holding our head in our hands. But while we use both hands, babies of stressed-out mothers preferred the touch of just one.
Although previous studies have found babies pick up on stress in the womb, this is believed to be the first to offer photographic evidence.
Researcher Nadja Reissland from Durham University gave 15 mothers-to-be 4D ultrasound scans four times during their pregnancy.
Rather than the grainy, ‘flat’ images produced by the 2D scanners usually used by the NHS, a 4D machine stitches together pictures taken from a variety of angles to create clear three-dimensional pictures.
These are then recorded on video – the fourth dimension.
The mothers-to-be were quizzed on their levels of stress in the month leading up to each scan and the videos were analysed to see how often the unborn babies touched their faces. In total, the eight girls and seven boys did so 342 times.
The study also found those whose mothers had been under pressure were more likely to use their left hand when touching their face.
This is significant because attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, depression and schizophrenia all more common in people who are left-handed.
Dr Reissland said: ‘Most mothers are fine and needn’t worry but some will need to think about reducing their stress.’