Babies have for the first time been found to recognise the shape of a face while in the womb.
Until recently it was thought the inside of the womb was completely dark.
But now a research project shows that not only can light get through, babies can actively follow a shape.
While the image that can be projected into the womb is fuzzy, scientists say it is enough to show babies can – and do – make use of their sense of vision before birth.
In the future, higher resolution images could be shown to the unborn – raising the possibility of parents beaming pictures of themselves into the womb for their babies to see.
British scientists projected red light in the shape of a face on to the mother’s bump. Only red light – which has the shortest wavelength – can penetrate the skin, muscle and fluid separating the baby from the outside world.
When the lights were in the shape of a crude face – two dots for eyes and one dot for a mouth – babies turned their heads to look at the face. But they were less likely to respond when the lights were upside down, and more likely to turn their heads away from it.
The research is the first to show that babies are able to respond to images in the womb. The findings help to explain why babies are so responsive to faces from birth – it is an in-built ability ‘wired’ into their brain, researchers said.
Dr Vincent Reid of Lancaster University said: "We have shown the foetus can distinguish between different shapes, preferring to track face-like over non-face-like shapes. This preference has been recognised in babies for many decades, but until now exploring foetal vision has not been attempted."
Dr Reid added: "There was the possibility that the foetus would find any shape interesting due to the novelty of the stimulus.
"If this was the case, we would have seen no difference in how they responded to the upright and upside-down versions of the stimuli. But it turned out that they responded in a way that was very similar to infants."
Dr Reid said that in time more detailed images could be projected inside the womb.