Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

The Development of Sensory Systems during the Prenatal Period

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

The Development of Sensory Systems during the Prenatal Period

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This paper will examine the anatomy and physiology of the development of the seven senses in utero. On the basis of this knowledge clinicians will be better able to promote more peaceful as well as enriched prenatal environments and plan interventions for children at risk for later developmental difficulties.

KEY WORDS: Prenatal, sensory systems, development, auditory, vision, taste, olfactory, tactile, proprioception, vestibular.

INTRODUCTION

There are many factors, both prenatal and postnatal, that influence a child's development. These factors include nature (genetics, epigenetics, familial tendencies, etc.) and nurture (environmental) influences. Thomson (2004) states that both embryology and fetal research support how nature and nurture overlap and cannot be easily separated. Smotherman (1995) describes how "development of human life is a process of epigenesis where life emerges from an interaction of genetic, phenotypic (including individual form, behavior, and metabolism) and environmental variables".

One major factor that contributes to neonatal development is how his/her sensory system becomes integrated. Sensory integration is the process that involves organizing sensation from the body and the environment (Ayres, 1979). There are five sequential steps in the dynamic process of sensory integration, which are sensory registration, orientation and attention, interpretation, organization of a response, and the execution of a response. This paper focuses on describing how the seven senses develop in utero, so that sensory integration can take place. From this knowledge, clinicians can improve their understanding of the development of normal sensory capabilities, learn to promote enriched prenatal environments and plan interventions for children at risk for sensory integration dysfunction.

The Seven Senses

We have four distal senses and three proximal or hidden senses. The four distal (or foreground) senses include vision, hearing, taste, and smell. It is difficult to separate touch and join and body movement, so the tactile sense is considered part of both the proximal and distal senses. The three senses that are proximal or hidden are touch (tactile) awareness, body position (proprioception) and movement (vestibular) awareness. The proximal senses are complicated and are considered key to one's ability to integrate sensory information accurately (Schepers & Benson, 2006).

For the purpose of this paper, neuro-typical is defined as children who have not been diagnosed with any disorders of speech, language, cognition, or motor development. These children are considered normal in their development, or have developed without disturbances of their neurological system.

DEVELOPMENT OF FOREGROUND SENSES IN THE UNBORN CHILD

Auditory

The vestibule-cochlear organs (the ear) are the organs that provide hearing. Each ear has three parts-external, middle, and internal. The external ear consists of the auricle and the external acoustic meatus. The middle ear consists of air space, the tympanic cavity and the temporal bone. The internal ear is a complicated fluid-filled space called the labyrinth, which is enclosed by the temporal bone.

The determination of when and how a neonate begins to hear was accomplished by using two primary methods. First, sound was transmitted through air by attaching a loud speaker to the mother's abdomen using a rubber or foam ring. The other method transmitted sound to the mother's abdomen by an oscillatory source (sound vibrator or tuning fork) placed near the fetus' head (Lecanuet, 1995). Ultrasound measured the fetus' motor responses, cardiac acceleration changes, and ontogeny of responses. By measuring the fetus' response, researchers determined when the fetus actually began functional hearing.

Hearing begins during the fifth week of gestation. The baby actively hears before the first trimester is completed, but hearing continues to mature slowly after the baby is born (Larson, 2001). …

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