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Ultrasound Finds Patterns To Fetal Yawning

November 23, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Obstetric Ultrasound
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Fetuses yawn.

That’s one of the conclusions of a new study published Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. It used 4-D ultrasound to image 15 healthy fetuses, eight girls and seven boys, at 24, 28, 32, and 36 weeks of gestation.

The study distinguished yawning from mere mouth opening by using a simple definition: when the mouth was open longer, it was a yawn. In practice, the definition closely followed that of an earlier study: yawning is characterized by a slow opening of the mouth and a much more rapid closing.

The frequency of yawning (and of other mouth openings) declined sharply as the fetuses developed, from about two yawns during the 20-minute ultrasound scans at 24 weeks to zero yawns at 36 weeks. Accordingly, the study says, “it is possible that yawning and simple mouth opening have a maturational function.”

Lead author Nadja Reissland, DPhil, lead author of the study, said the precise reasons for yawning in the womb remain elusive, pending further study:

Unlike us, fetuses do not yawn contagiously, nor do they yawn because they are sleepy. Instead, the frequency of yawning in the womb may be linked to the maturing of the brain early in gestation.

Dr. Reissland is a senior lecturer in psychology at Durham University in Durham, England. She was quoted in a university news release.

The article includes a lot of yawn trivia: Yawns, according to one researcher, are so infectious that simply thinking or reading about yawning triggers a yawn about 60 percent of the time. However, the contagion effect doesn’t kick in until about the age of 5. Premature infants yawn more frequently than full-term babies, and elementary school–age children yawn more frequently than kindergarten pupils.

The researchers apparently didn’t consider the possibility that fetuses yawn because it’s boring in the womb. Perhaps follow-up studies will address that question.

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Happy Thanksgiving! We are very grateful to all of you. Thanks for reading Radiology Daily.

Related seminar: Advances in Fetal and Neonatal Imaging

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