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Babies in womb ‘smile’ for carrots and grimace for kale, study finds

The Independent logo The Independent 5 days ago Joanna Whitehead

Babies in the womb react to what their mothers eat, grimacing when they smell and taste greens, but smiling for carrots, researchers have discovered.

In a landmark study, scientists have uncovered evidence that babies react differently to distinct smells and tastes while in the womb by recording their facial expressions.

Researchers from Durham University took 4D ultrasound scans of 100 pregnant women to study how unborn babies reacted after being exposed to flavours from foods eaten by their mothers.

Foetuses exposed to carrot showed more “laughter-face” responses, while those exposed to kale showed more “cry-face” reactions.

The study, which is published in the journal Psychological Science, could advance understanding of how human taste and smell receptors develop.

Experts also believe that what mothers eat throughout pregnancy could influence babies’ taste preferences after birth and may have implications for healthy eating habits.

A 4D ultrasound image of a baby taken before flavours were introduced (Durham University / SWNS) © Provided by The Independent A 4D ultrasound image of a baby taken before flavours were introduced (Durham University / SWNS)

Mothers were scanned at 32 and 36 weeks pregnancy to see foetal facial reactions to the kale and carrot flavours, as part of the research.

They were given a single capsule containing approximately 400mg of carrot or 400mg kale powder around 20 minutes before each scan and avoided eating anything with a flavour for an hour beforehand.

Facial reactions seen in both groups showed that exposure to just a small amount of carrot or kale flavour was sufficient to stimulate a response.

It is thought foetuses experience flavour by inhaling and swallowing amniotic fluid in the womb.

Postgraduate Beyza Ustun, who led the research, said: “A number of studies have suggested that babies can taste and smell in the womb, but they are based on post-birth outcomes while our study is the first to see these reactions prior to birth.

“As a result, we think that this repeated exposure to flavours before birth could help to establish food preferences post-birth, which could be important when thinking about messaging around healthy eating and the potential for avoiding 'food-fussiness' when weaning.”

The study could have implications for healthy eating in utero (Getty Images/iStockphoto) © Provided by The Independent The study could have implications for healthy eating in utero (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

She added: “It was really amazing to see unborn babies' reaction to kale or carrot flavours during the scans and share those moments with their parents.”

Co-author Professor Nadja Reissland, who heads the Fetal and Neonatal Research Lab, said: “This latest study could have important implications for understanding the earliest evidence for foetal abilities to sense and discriminate different flavours and smells from the foods ingested by their mothers.”

Research co-author Professor Jackie Blissett, of Aston University, said: “It could be argued that repeated prenatal flavour exposures may lead to preferences for those flavours experienced postnatally.

“In other words, exposing the foetus to less 'liked' flavours, such as kale, might mean they get used to those flavours in utero.

“The next step is to examine whether foetuses show less 'negative' responses to these flavours over time, resulting in greater acceptance of those flavours when babies first taste them outside of the womb.”

Additional reporting by SWNS

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