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Prenatal Development

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Prenatal Development

Have you ever wondered why some babies are born with birth defects? Intellectual disabilities? Born too early? Through studying prenatal development, we can begin to understand the answers to all these questions.

  • What is prenatal development?
  • What are the key stages of prenatal development?
  • What are factors affecting prenatal development?

Prenatal Development Definition

Prenatal development is the period from the conception of the zygote to the baby's birth. During this phase, the baby develops from a fertilized egg to a fully formed tiny human.

Stages of Prenatal Development

The following text describes in detail three major prenatal developmental phases.

Germinal Phase of Development

The germinal phase includes the fertilization of the egg and continual cell division from a couple of cells to a couple of hundreds. After these first two weeks, the developing zygote enters the embryonic phase.

The germinal period is the first phase of prenatal development that the zygote undergoes, encompassing the first two weeks after conception.

The zygote is the fertilized egg that will eventually develop into the fetus.

Embryonic Phase of Development

The embryonic development period lasts from the second to the eighth week. This phase is crucial in laying the groundwork for developing bodily structures and organs.

Once the zygote enters this phase, it is now called an embryo. The embryo continues the process of cell division and begins to form its structures. Around weeks three to five, the beginning of the embryo’s brain is formed. The external body structures, such as the eyes and ears, begin to take shape by weeks five to eight.

Organogenesis also begins during the embryonic phase, when the internal organs start to form.

At the end of the embryonic period, the embryo is around one inch long.

Fetal Phase of Development

The fetal development period lasts from the ninth week until the baby is born. As soon as the embryo enters this period, it becomes a fetus and remains one until delivered. The fetal phase is the longest and contains the most development.

During the fetal development phase, the organs become differentiated and start to function independently. At the beginning of this phase, the fetus can react to touch and begins to move its fingers. Starting at around 16 weeks, the mother begins to feel the fetus move since it is getting strong enough to make larger movements. Around the same time, the fetus can be stimulated by light and sound and continues to develop its facial features. Between 16 to 20 weeks, doctors can tell the sex of the baby through an ultrasound.

Although the fetus is becoming stronger at the beginning of the fetal phase and is rapidly developing its brain neurons, it is still unable to survive outside of the womb. However, around 22 weeks, it enters the age of viability.

The age of viability is when the fetus, if born prematurely, would be able to survive outside of the womb. Not all babies survive, with 22 to 26 weeks yielding the lowest survival rates.

Even though the fetus still would have had weeks of development left, we thankfully have the technology to support prematurely born babies to regulate their body temperature and help them breathe.

If the fetus is not born prematurely, major organs and muscles continue to grow in the third month of development. The nervous system becomes connected, and the lungs can contract and expand. Even the fetus’ tiny fingernails and toenails are formed. Development continues throughout the pregnancy. The third and final trimester lasts from 27 weeks to the baby's birth. Here, the lungs mature, the baby develops a layer of fat under its skin, and the baby develops its fingerprint.

Prematurely Born Babies

Once the babies are at the age of viability, they can survive if born prematurely - not all do, but they now have a chance. A prematurely born baby, also called a premie, is considered a baby born before 37 weeks of pregnancy (compared to a full-term baby carried for 40 weeks). A baby born between weeks 32 and 36 is a moderate to late premie, weeks 28 to 32 is very premature, and any baby born before 28 weeks is considered extremely premature.

Prenatal Development, A black and white photograph of a mother sitting in a chair leaning her head back with her eyes close. Placed on her chest is her prematurely born infant, about the size of her hand, StudySmarterMother and her prematurely born baby. wikimedia commons.

What Causes a Baby to Be Born Prematurely?

Many reasons can cause a baby to be born early. To start, the mother's health is an important feature of pregnancy, and if the mother’s health is poor, it could cause the baby to be a premie. If a mother is experiencing abuse, lack of nutrients, or other stressful life events that put extreme pressure on the prenatal environment, it could lead to a prematurely born baby. If the mother’s health is at risk, doctors perform a Cesarean section to deliver the baby before it reaches full term. Concurrently, the mother’s age is a factor in the birth of a child. While getting pregnant at an older age is a risk for the mother and the baby, it can also lead to more premature births.

Furthermore, multiple babies in the mother’s womb will cause the births to be premature. This is simply due to a lack of space. As the babies continue to develop, the mother’s womb gets to a point where it can no longer sufficiently house and provide for the babies.

Factors Affecting Prenatal Development

While 95-98% of babies are born without birth defects, every so often, it happens.

Genetic Factors

One of the reasons for a baby being born with a disability is its genes or the combination of chromosomes. Technology has developed to the point where pregnant mothers can be screened to know if their baby will be born with a genetic condition.

Down Syndrome

Infants born with down syndrome have an extra chromosome, chromosome 21, which attached itself during the conception of the zygote. Mothers who become pregnant before the age of 18 and after 35 are at a higher risk of giving birth to a baby with down syndrome. People with down syndrome typically have slower physical development and intellectual disabilities.

Tay-Sachs Disease

Tay-Sachs is a genetic disorder that the parents pass on to their children. This disease causes the child to have difficulties breaking down fatty matter in the body, leading to buildups in the spine and brain. This matter keeps building up until the child suffers from malfunctioning of their nerves, eventually leading to an early death. The majority of children who suffer from Tay-Sachs disease are from an Eastern European Jewish background and do not live past the age of four. Currently, there is no cure.

Marfan Syndrome

Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that manifests itself physically as it does internally. People with this disorder are usually tall and lean, have especially long limbs and fingers, and many either have a concave or convex chest. Internally, people with this syndrome have heart problems, often including high blood pressure and heart murmurs, as well as difficulty seeing.

Cystic Fibrosis

Babies are born with cystic fibrosis due to a mutation in one of their genes, requiring that both parents possess this gene for them to have a baby with cystic fibrosis. This disease causes the body to be unable to regulate mucus and sweat production, leading to a buildup in key areas of the body – the lungs and other internal organs. Parents can be tested to see if they carry the cystic fibrosis gene.

Environmental Factors

Along with the genetic factors are the prenatal environmental factors that can affect the baby's health.

The leading environmental factor, a teratogen, is any harmful substance the mother ingests that can lead to harming the baby.

Any harmful substance that the mother uses goes through her blood, the placenta, the umbilical cord, and to the baby.

Mothers who use drugs while pregnant put their babies at a high risk of being born addicted to the same drug. After the baby is born, it goes through withdrawals, just as an adult would. However, these withdrawals can lead to potential physical and intellectual damage.

A mother who consumes excessive amounts of alcohol during pregnancy could have a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD). Babies born with FASD will have facial deformities, intellectual disabilities, and physical growth problems.

Prenatal Development, A black and white photograph of an infant with FASD. The baby has small eye openings, a smooth philtrum, and a thin upper lip., StudySmarterAn infant with FASD. wikimedia commons.

If the mother has AIDS, she can pass it on to her baby. Smoking can lead to early birth and an underweight baby. If a mother is exposed to radiation, she is at a higher risk of giving birth to a baby with an intellectual disability and physical irregularities.

Of course, if a mother uses drugs once, her baby is not at high risk of being born addicted compared to a mother who is an addict. However, it still has a significantly higher risk than a baby from a mother not using any drugs. Since the mother is creating life, it is essential that she does not ingest any substance that would harm the baby in addition to existing in a less stressful environment.

Prenatal development and the Newborn - Key takeaways

  • The germinal phase is the first two weeks after conception when the zygote, the fertilized egg, begins the process of cell division.
  • The embryonic phase is the third to eighth week when major organ and bodily structure development occurs. During this phase, the zygote becomes an embryo.
  • The fetal phase is the ninth week until the baby is born, when the development of all organs and body parts continues. Around 22 weeks, the baby enters the age of viability, the age at which a prematurely born baby could survive with the help of modern technology.
  • The mother's health, the prenatal environment, multiple babies, and the mother's age are factors for a baby to be born prematurely.
  • Combinations of genes or extra chromosomes can lead to genetic deformities such as down syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, Marfan syndrome, or cystic fibrosis.
  • If the mother ingests harmful substances (drugs, alcohol, or other teratogens) when pregnant, she puts her baby at a higher risk to be born with disabilities.

Frequently Asked Questions about Prenatal Development

The most sensitive period in prenatal development is the embryonic period because internal organs are being created.

Prenatal development is the period from the conception of the zygote to the baby's birth.

The three stages of prenatal development are the germinal, embryonic, and fetal phases of development. 

Genetic factors put certain babies at a higher risk for genetically inherited disorders such as Marfan syndrome. 

Prenatal development is important because it is the crucial period when babies develop important cells, structures, and parts of their bodies they will continue to use for the rest of their lives. 

Final Prenatal Development Quiz

Question

Who is Jean Piaget?

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Jean Piaget was a psychologist that studied cognitive development in children.

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What is the sensorimotor stage of development in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development?

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In the sensorimotor stage of development, the child uses their senses to interact with the world around them and to learn about their environment and surroundings.

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How many substages are in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the sensorimotor stage?


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There are six substages to sensorimotor development. 

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What is the first substage of sensorimotor development?


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The first substage of sensorimotor development is reflexes, in this stage newborns are responsive to touch and other stimulation around them.

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What is the second substage of sensorimotor development?


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The second substage of sensorimotor development is primary circular reactions, this stage is when the baby begins to make more intentional and specific movements.

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What is the third substage of sensorimotor development?


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The third substage of sensorimotor development is secondary circular reactions, in this stage, the baby starts using objects and things around them and realizes that they can make things happen.

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What is implicit memory?

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Memories that are often unable to be recalled but are still stored as memories 

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What is explicit memory?

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When we actively and consciously recall a memory

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What is a phoneme and what is interesting about babies and phonemes?

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A phoneme is a sound that pertains to a language. When a baby is born they have the ability to make distinctions between different phonemes across any language. 

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What is object permanence?


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Object permanence is when the child understands that people and objects continue to exist whether they can be seen or not.

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Who is Lev Vygotsky?


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Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist that is best known for his sociocultural theory.

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What is the sociocultural theory?


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Sociocultural Theory is when you look at a child’s social and cultural environment and what kinds of interactions that child has with adults and peers to see their influence.

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Is language development a key component to cognitive development for newborns?


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Yes, language plays a large role in cognitive development for newborns. 

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What is holophrastic speech?


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Holophrastic speech is where the child says things like “ga” and is trying to communicate the word, “go” with someone around them.

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Does breastfeeding impact cognitive development?

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Yes! Studies have shown that babies who are breastfed are more cognitively advanced than those who aren't. 

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How long does the germinal phase last?

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Just the first two weeks after conception

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What is a zygote?

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The fertilized egg in the germinal phase of development

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How long does the embryonic phase last?

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From around weeks two and three to the eighth week

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What is an embryo?

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The leveled-up form of a zygote. Once the zygote enters this stage, it becomes an embryo. 

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What is organogenesis?

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When the baby's organs begin to form in the embryonic phase of development 

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How long does the fetal phase last?

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From around the eighth or ninth week until the baby is born

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What is the age of viability?

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The age that if a baby were to be born prematurely, they would have a chance at survival, usually around 22 weeks

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Why is a baby born with down syndrome?

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During conception, the baby had an extra chromosome attach itself 

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What is Tay-Sachs disease?

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A genetic disorder that hinders the baby from being able to break down fatty material, leading to a buildup in the brain and spine and ultimately death

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What is Marfan syndrome?

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A genetic disorder that causes people to have many heart problems and extremely long limbs and fingers

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What is cystic fibrosis?

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A disorder passed on from each parent inhibiting the baby to regulate the production of fluids such as sweat and mucus

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What is a teratogen?

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A harmful substance that the mother ingests when pregnant

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What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder?

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When the mother drinks while pregnant. It causes facial deformities and intellectual challenges. 

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What is not a reason for a baby to be born prematurely?

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The mother's age

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What is not a reason for a baby to be born prematurely?

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A stressful environment for the mother

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________  in infancy focuses on the growth and development of a child, naturally, over time.

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Physical development

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In most cases, physical development is considered a genetic force that is predetermined and inherited, called _______.

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maturation

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When someone is influenced by _____, aspects of them are pre-determined by genetics.

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nature

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When someone is influenced by ______, psychologists believe that they are influenced by their environment and what they've learned.

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nurture

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Physical development in Psychology is generally agreed upon as an influence of ______.


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nature

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How long is the infancy stage?

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From birth until one year old

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What is the Cephalocaudal rule?

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That the body physically develops from the head downwards.

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Newborn babies are born with?

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reflexes

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_______ is how a newborn is able to latch onto a breast when they are born, it is a natural part of the feeding process.

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sucking

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________ happens when a baby turns its head, typically to feed, but this can be cued by touching a baby's cheek.

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rooting

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________ is when a baby is able to use their throat muscles to consume the milk.

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swallowing

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When babies close their hands around someones finger or an object when it is placed into the palm of their hands... this is known as?

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grasping

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True/False: Infants become startled as soon as birth.

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True

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By ___ months of age at the latest, a baby should be able to fully raise their head without any support or assistance.

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6

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By ____ months of age, a baby should be able to sit upright.

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9

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True or False: The term for the period of time right after birth is postnatal.  

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True 

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For mothers, what is the term used to describe the period of time after birth? 

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Postpartum 

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True or False: A neonate is another term for a newborn baby or a baby that has left the womb. 

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True 

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True or False: Reflexes are controlled by the spinal cord rather than the brain, allowing for quick, immediate reactions. 

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True 

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True or False: The rooting reflex is triggered by stroking a baby's cheek. 

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True 

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