Don’t be alarmed – these dozing tots in the electrode head caps are in fine health.
In fact, they’re providing the proof that mothers who exercise during pregnancy give their children a head start in life.
Researchers found that being exposed to physical activity while in the womb boosts brain development. Just three 20-minute sessions a week makes a difference.
The Canadian researchers looked at new babies – such as the one in the picture – but believe the benefits could last for life.
‘We are optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child’s future,’ said the team from the University of Montreal.
They asked ten pregnant women to exercise enough to leave them slightly short of breath at least three times a week. They clocked up an average of almost two hours of exercise a week – some walked briskly, while others ran, cycled or went swimming.
A second group of mothers-to-be did not take part in exercise and so were only moderately active for around ten minutes a week.
When the babies were born, the researchers measured their brain activity using a cap covered in more than 100 electrodes cushioned in sponges.
As each baby slept on its mother’s lap, it was played a bleeping noise repeatedly. Occasionally, the bleeps were interrupted by a second sound.
Brain activity, picked up painlessly by the cap, showed that the babies whose mothers had exercised found it easier to tell the two sounds apart.
This is seen as a sign of maturity and suggests their brains had developed more rapidly.
‘Our research indicates that exercise during pregnancy enhances the newborn’s brain development,’ said study leader Professor Dave Ellemberg.
The annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience heard that previous research had concluded that exercise in pregnancy improves IQ and vocabulary until at least the age of five.
Other research suggested that women who are active in pregnancy may be boosting the heart health of their children in later life.
It is not clear why exercise helps the unborn child’s brain but it may be that it increases the oxygen supply. Exercise may also increase production of a brain-boosting protein called BDNF.
Researcher Élise Labonté-LeMoyne said that exercising in pregnancy could be a simple and inexpensive way to give a baby a head start in life. ‘Thinking about your child is very good motivation but also do it for yourself,’ she said.
‘You are training to give birth and that is probably going to be the hardest thing you will do in your life. If you are physically fit it could be a little easier to get through it and get back from it.’
Colleague Professor Daniel Curnier said: ‘While being sedentary increases the risks of suffering complications during pregnancy, being active can ease post-birth recovery, make pregnancy more comfortable and reduce the risk of obesity in children.’