Researcher Karyn Donnelly isn't just counting fingers and toes. She's putting a developing baby boy through a battery of tests.
"We actually pick up fetuses as early as 28 weeks and begin to study them," explains Donnelly, a SIDS researcher. "We study them three times prenatally, and study their ability to cycle through sleep and wake states."
It's an important part of research that is helping to unlock clues to the mystery of sudden infant death syndrome.
One day last spring, while Donnelly was performing a routine ultrasound of a 32-week-old developing fetus, something strange happened.
"I stimulated her and she went into this movement, where her mouth opened and her chin started quivering and you can see her chest movements as well. I had never seen that before," Donnelly says.
She didn't have a clue what it was she was seeing.
"What I did is stimulate her again, and she did it again, and at this point I was honestly a little nervous about what I was seeing and decided not to continue," Donnelly says.
She showed the ultrasound video to the program's lead researcher. That's when the light bulb went off.
"When we started to look at the coordinated movement -- the chest, the chin quivering, and the head back, and sort of this recovery stage -- and we looked at it closely and realized it was the fetal equivalent of a cry, in all its phases," Donnelly says.
The ultrasound tipped off doctors that the boo-hoo familiar to parents after a baby's birth actually begins to develop long before the child's delivery day.
Since discovering that first budding cry-baby, Donnelly has documented 17 other womb weepers.
"What would make us think a baby wouldn't do this? A cry is a very necessary component to life after birth. They really need to know how to do it as soon as they are born," she says.
The fetuses cried only after they were stimulated with a buzzer, so researchers plan to see if they can pick up crying without stimulation. This finding may have a link to sudden infant death syndrome, since the crying reflex is found in the same part of the brain that controls breathing and heart rate.
Reported By Helen Chickering