Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Prenatal Body Language: A New Perspective on Ourselves*

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Prenatal Body Language: A New Perspective on Ourselves*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Body language is a direct form of communication which begins long before formal language, occurs continually, and has universal meanings throughout the life span. Current technologies permit us to observe human movement and expression during the entire period of human gestation, and reveal the early origins of sensory perception, emotional expression, and personality. There appear to be three types of prenatal body language: 1) self-initiated, spontaneous movements, 2) behaviors reactive to the environment, and 3) interactive, social behaviors. These early behaviors add greatly to the empirical database of prenatal psychology and have important implications for developmental psychology, neonatology, therapeutic work with primal trauma, and our understanding of human consciousness.


A combination of modern technologies makes it possible to observe human behavior throughout the entire period of gestation. Experiments using real-time ultrasound and refined measurement of vital signs have dramatically extended psychological observation in the early prenatal period, providing an expanded empirical foundation for prenatal psychology. The findings are revolutionary! Nearly everything we thought we knew about prenatal behavior 30 years ago is at least suspect and much of it is obsolete, calling for new paradigms to describe prenates (Verny, 1986; Chamberlain, 1988, 1992; Smotherman & Robinson, 1987, 1989; Nijhuis, 1992). Early manifestations of self-expression, sensation, emotion, interactive learning and memory argue for changes in developmental concepts, changes in routine prenatal and newborn care, and changes in public recognition of infant trauma and the need for its timely resolution.

While textbooks in developmental psychology give little hint of the profound importance of life before birth, critics point to the weakness of theories constructed without reference to prenatal life (Smotherman & Robinson, 1987, 1989; Hofer, 1981, 1989; Nijhuis, 1992). The widespread view that significant human behavior is not possible until months after birth (e.g., Preyer, 1888; Piaget, 1973; Flavell, 1977; Kagan, 1981) is no longer consistent with research findings.

Fetal body language offers a basis for new understanding of who we are. Under review will be observations of human movement during the first 40 weeks of gestation. Movement serves many purposes, among them exploration, self-protection, expression of individuality, and communication. Movement inevitably reveals needs, interests, talents, feelings, and cognitive processes. The language of movement has advantages over formal, spoken language because it begins much earlier. Movement is a rapid form of communication, occurs constantly, and has universal meanings throughout the human life-span. The youngest humans speak this language.

In highlighting current findings, the data have been sorted into three types of body language: (1) self-initiated, (2) reactive, and, (3) interactive movements. Examples include facial expressions, sounds, hand signals, leg and arm movements, swallowing, sucking, breathing movements, sleeping/dreaming, and heart activity. These three categories are not meant to represent isolated or mutually exclusive behaviors, nor do they exhaust the possibilities. They do provide new perspectives on the earliest observable origins of human behavior.


Fetal movements, documented by ultrasound as early as the sixth week of gestational age (g.a.), increase steadily until most of the movement repertoire is visible between 8 and 10 weeks. By 10 weeks, handto-hand, hand-to-face, hand-to-mouth movements, independent flexion and extension movements of the limbs, rotational movements of the fetus along its longitudinal axis, swallowing, and mouth opening and closing have been recorded via ultrasound (Tajani & Ianniruberto, 1990). From 10-12 weeks onward, seasoned observers describe the movements as endogenous, spontaneous, and graceful, not as reflexive (Prechtl, 1985; deVries et al. …

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