Pregnancy & Childbirth
Can you remember your birthday? Not the day you celebrate each year—but the day you were born. Many people think a baby starts at this time, and that this is day one. But life does not start when a baby is born, it starts about nine months earlier. A human body begins developing nine months before birth. Over nine months it grows and develops into a baby inside its mother’s womb (uterus). This time is known as pregnancy. Then the baby leaves its mother’s womb and emerges into the outside world, in the process known as childbirth.
IN THE BEGINNING
A human body begins when a tiny egg cell from the mother joins with an even tinier sperm cell from the father. The egg and sperm join inside the mother, in a tube called the Fallopian tube or oviduct. This tube links the ovary, where the egg came from, with the womb. The joining of egg and sperm is known as fertilization.
The fertilized egg is a single cell, slightly smaller than this full stop. To begin development it splits, or divides, into two cells. Each of these then divides into two more cells, and so on. Within a few days, there is a ball of more than a hundred cells, which is the early embryo. During these first days, it has passed through the Fallopian tube into the womb. Here it settles into the lining of the womb, where it can take in nutrients as its cells continue to divide and grow.
THE FIRST FEW WEEKS
About two weeks after fertilization, the early embryo has thousands of cells and is shaped like a flat plate. The edges curl over and the plate bends into a C shape. After three weeks the embryo is still tiny, hardly larger than a grain of rice. It looks like a curled-up worm. But inside, important parts such as the brain and heart start to form.
After four weeks the heart has begun to pump, the stomach and guts are taking shape, the eyes are forming as dark spots and there are small paddle-like stumps that will grow into arms and legs. All through pregnancy, but especially during these early stages, the baby can be harmed if the mother smokes, drinks alcohol, takes certain drugs or does not eat healthy foods.
THE NEXT FEW WEEKS
By the fifth week, the brain is almost as large as the rest of the body. After six weeks the body shape gradually becomes recognizable as a tiny human, with a face, eyes and ears and the start of fingers and toes. There is a short pointed tail during these early stages, but it soon shrinks away.
By eight weeks the embryo is still only the size of a grape. Yet it has all its main body parts inside, and even the beginnings of eyelids and fingertips.
CHANGE OF NAME
After two months, the tiny developing baby is no longer called an embryo, but a foetus. Most of the next seven months are spent growing in size and developing small body details such as fingernails, toenails, and eyelashes.
MIDDLE OF PREGNANCY
By the end of the fourth month, the face has taken on a baby-like appearance. During the fifth month, growth is fast, although the body looks quite slim and wrinkly. A very soft, thin type of hair, called lanugo, covers the body. The unborn baby is about 15 centimetres long in its natural curled-up position. It can move about, nod its head and push out its arms and legs. By the sixth month, it may spend hours sucking its thumb.
HOW THE UNBORN BABY BREATHES
The womb is dark and warm inside and filled with a liquid called amniotic fluid. The baby cannot breathe for itself or eat food. Nourishment and oxygen come from the mother. The baby’s blood flows along a rope-like umbilical cord, to a plate-shaped part in the wall of the womb, called the placenta (afterbirth). Inside the placenta, oxygen and nutrients pass from the mother’s blood into the baby’s blood. The baby’s blood then flows back along the umbilical cord to its body.
THE PREGNANT MOTHER
The mother may know she is pregnant after a few weeks because she does not have a period at the usual time in her menstrual cycle. She can find out if she is expecting a baby by taking a pregnancy test. In this, a small sample of her urine or blood is checked for certain chemical substances.
After about four months the mother’s tummy (abdomen) begins to bulge, as the womb and baby grow larger. After five months she can feel the baby moving and kicking. By six months the baby’s movements can be seen from the outside as bulges under her skin.
Most pregnant women visit a doctor or a specialist health worker, called a midwife, several times during pregnancy. These antenatal (before birth) check-ups make sure that both mother and unborn baby are well. Pregnant women usually have an ultrasound scan. This sends harmless, very high-pitched sound waves into the mother’s body. These bounce back to form a picture of the baby inside the womb.
When the baby is tiny it has plenty of room in the womb. From about the sixth month, the fast-growing baby has much less room and becomes squashed. From the seventh month, plenty of fat forms under the baby’s skin and makes it look much more chubby.
After nine months the baby is ready to be born. Some mothers stay at home for the birth. Others prefer to go to the hospital, where there are doctors and medical equipment in case of a problem. In some regions, there are special places for mothers and babies, called maternity hospitals or clinics.
AN EXHAUSTING EVENT
The walls of the womb are made of powerful muscles. Childbirth begins when these muscles squeeze hard. This squeezing is called a contraction. Contractions push the baby towards the opening of the womb, called the cervix, which leads to the birth canal (vagina). Gradually the cervix becomes wider or dilates. This stage of birth is known as labour. It can last for one hour or much longer and is usually very tiring and uncomfortable for the mother. At last, the baby slips through the womb opening, along the birth canal, and out. This is the moment of birth, known as delivery.
Most babies are born head first, which is the easiest way to slide out. If the baby’s bottom, arm or leg tries to come out first, this can cause trouble. The doctor may be able to press on the mother’s abdomen and turn the baby into the right position. If not, or if there are other problems, one answer may be a Caesarean section. This is an operation to cut an opening carefully in the mother’s abdomen and remove the baby through it. The opening is then stitched closed.
At birth, the baby must quickly start to breathe for itself. Usually, it starts to cry, since leaving the warm, dark womb is a big surprise! Crying helps to open up the baby’s breathing tubes and get air into its lungs. Soon after the baby is born, the placenta (afterbirth) also comes out of the womb. The baby is ready for its first feed of milk from its mother’s breasts. Then, after the long and tiring birth, mother and baby settle down for a good sleep.
Did you know?
• Labour usually lasts 13 to 14 hours for a woman’s first child, and then 8 or 9 hours for later births.
• The colour of most babies’ eyes will change soon after they are born. It can take up to a year for the colour to settle.
• The number of women giving birth to twins, or even triplets, is increasing. In 2000, there were nearly 10,000 multiple births.