Stages of Prenatal Development

How the Brain Develops During the Prenatal Period

Considering the stages of prenatal development
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While you might think of child development as something that begins during infancy, the prenatal period is also considered an important part of the developmental process. Prenatal development is a time of remarkable change that helps set the stage for future psychological development. The brain develops over the course of the prenatal period, but it will continue to go through more changes during the early years of childhood

Let's take a closer look at the major stages and events that take place during the prenatal period of development. The process of prenatal development occurs in three main stages.

The first two weeks after conception are known as the germinal stage, the third through the eighth week are known as the embryonic period, and the time from the ninth week until birth is known as the fetal period.

Germinal Stage

The germinal stage begins at conception when the sperm and egg cell unite in one of the two fallopian tubes. The fertilized egg, known as a zygote, then moves toward the uterus, a journey that can take up to a week to complete. Cell division begins approximately 24 to 36 hours after conception.

Within just a few hours after conception, the single-celled zygote begins making a journey down the fallopian tube to the uterus where it will begin the process of cell division and growth. Through the process of mitosis, the zygote first divides into two cells, then into four, eight, sixteen, and so on.

A significant number of zygote's never progress past this early part of cell division, with as many as half of all zygote's surviving less than two weeks.

Once the eight cell point has been reached, the cells begin to differentiate and take on certain characteristics that will determine the type of cells they will eventually become.

As the cells multiply, they will also separate into two distinctive masses: the outer cells will eventually become the placenta while the inner cells will form the embryo.

Cell division continues at a rapid rate and the cells then develop into what is known as a blastocyst. The blastocyst is made up of three layers:

  1. The ectoderm (which will become the skin and nervous system)
  2. The endoderm (which will become the digestive and respiratory systems)
  3. The mesoderm (which will become the muscle and skeletal systems).

Finally, the blastocyst arrives at the uterus and attached to the uterine wall, a process known as implantation.

Implantation occurs when the cells nestle into the uterine lining and rupture tiny blood vessels. The connective web of blood vessels and membranes that form between them will provide nourishment for the developing being for the next nine months. Implantation is not always an automatic and sure-fire process.

Researchers estimate that approximately 60 percent of all natural conceptions never become properly implanted in the uterus, which results in the new life ending before the mother is ever aware she is pregnant.

When implantation is successful, hormonal changes halt a woman’s normal menstrual cycle and cause a whole host of physical changes.

For some women, activities they previously enjoyed such as smoking and drinking alcohol or coffee may become less palatable, possibly part of nature’s way of protecting the growing life inside her.

Embryonic Stage

At this point, the mass of cells is now known as an embryo. The beginning of the third week after conception marks the start of the embryonic period, a time when the mass of cells becomes distinct as a human. The embryonic stage plays an important role in the development of the brain. 

The embryo begins to divide into three layers each of which will become an important body system. Approximately 22 days after conception, the neural tube forms.

This tube will later develop into the central nervous system including the spinal cord and brain.

The neural tube begins to form along an area known as the neural plate. The earliest signs of development of the neural tube are the emergence of two ridges that form along each side of the neural place. Over the next few days, more ridges form and fold inward until a hollow tube is formed. Once this tube is fully formed, the cells begin to form near the center. The tube begins to close and brain vesicles form. These vesicles will eventually develop into parts of the brain including the structures of the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain.

Around the fourth week, the head begins to form quickly followed by the eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. The cardiovascular system is where the earliest activity begins as the blood vessel that will become the heart start to pulse.

During the fifth week, buds that will form the arms and legs appear.

By the time the eighth week of development has been reached, the embryo has all of the basic organs and parts except those of the sex organs. It even has knees and elbows! At this point, the embryo weighs just one gram and is about one inch in length.

By the end of the embryonic period, the basic structures of the brain and central nervous system have been established. At this point in development, the basic structure of the central and peripheral nervous system are also defined.

Research has shown that the production of neurons begins around day 42 after conception and is mostly complete sometime around the middle of pregnancy. As neurons form, they migrate to different areas of the brain. Once they have reached the correct location, they begin to form connections with other neural cells, establishing rudimentary neural networks.

Fetal Stage

Once cell differentiation is mostly complete, the embryo enters the next stage and becomes known as a fetus. The fetal period of prenatal develop marks more important changes in the brain. This period of develop begins during the ninth week and lasts until birth.

The early body systems and structures established in the embryonic stage continue to develop. It is at this point in prenatal development that the neural tube develops into the brain and spinal cord and neurons continue to form. Once these neurons have formed, they begin to migrate to their correct locations. Synapses, or the connections between neurons, also begin to develop.

It is during the period between the 9th and 12th week at the earliest reflexes begin to emerge and the fetus begins to make reflexive motions with his arms and legs.

This stage of prenatal development lasts the longest and is marked by amazing change and growth. During the third month of gestation, the sex organs begin to differentiate and by the end of the month, all parts of the body will be formed. At this point, the fetus weight around three ounces. The fetus continues to grow in both weight and length, although the majority of the physical growth occurs in the later stages of pregnancy.

The end of the third month also marks the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. During the second trimester, or months four through six, the heartbeat grows stronger and other body systems become further developed. Fingernails, hair, eyelashes and toenails form. Perhaps most noticeably, the fetus increases quite dramatically in size, increasing about six times in size.

So what's going on inside the brain during this important period of prenatal development? The brain and central nervous system also become more responsive during the second trimester. Around 28 weeks, the brain starts to mature faster with activity that greatly resembles that of a sleeping newborn.

During the period from seven months until birth, the fetus continues to develop, put on weight, and prepare for life outside the womb. The lungs begin to expand and contract, preparing the muscles for breathing.

A Word From Verywell

The prenatal period of development is a time of physical growth, but what's going on inside the brain is critical for future psychological development. The brain development that takes place during the prenatal period helps set the course for what will take place outside the womb.

While prenatal development usually follows this normal pattern, there are times when problems or deviations occur. Learn more about some of the problems with prenatal development. Disease, malnutrition, and other prenatal influences can have a powerful impact on how the brain develops during this critical period.

But brain development does not end at birth. There is a considerable amount of brain development that takes place postnatally including growing in size and volume while changing in structure. The brain grows by about four times the size between birth and preschool. As children learn and have new experiences, some networks in the brain are strengthened while other connections are pruned.

Sources:

Levine, L.E., & Munsch, J. (2010). Child Development: An Active Learning Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Shaffer, D.R., & Kipp, K. (2010). Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Stiles, J & Jernigan, TL. The basics of brain development. Neuropsychology Review. 2010;20(4):327-348.

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