Can Babies Feel Their Mothers' Emotions in the Womb?

Mothers usually take special care with certain risk factors during pregnancy. However, what about their emotional life? What role does it play in the development of the fetus?
Can Babies Feel Their Mothers' Emotions in the Womb?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

For decades, science has claimed that babies feel their mother’s emotions in the womb. That said, there are nuances. In fact, fetuses have no understanding and no possible way of knowing what sadness, joy, or fear is. However, they’re sensitive to ‘hormonal baths’ orchestrated by stress or anxiety.

It’s often claimed that the most decisive stage for a fetus is when it reaches the 32nd week. It’s then that it behaves almost like a newborn and is most sensitive to everything that surrounds it. Fetuses even dream and have their own REM phases of sleep. Indeed, parents often attempt to stimulate them from the outside with music, kind words, caresses and even applying lights to the mother’s abdomen.

These practices seek to enhance their cognitive abilities although the importance of maternal well-being as a decisive variable for fetal neurodevelopment is often neglected. Nevertheless, the emotional connection between the baby and the mother is so intense that everything she feels comes to the fetus in exactly the same way as food does, through the umbilical cord.

A mother’s emotions can cross into the womb in the same way that nicotine or alcohol does.

Pregnant woman wondering if can babies feel their mothers' emotions from the womb?
The life of fetuses in the uterine universe isn’t as safe as we might think. In fact, they too may experience stress.

Babies feel their mothers’ emotions in the womb

When pregnant, women tend to pay more attention to their diet and lifestyle but they don’t always focus so much on their emotional well-being. For example, not taking maternity leave until the last moment and working in a stressful environment can affect the development of the fetus.

The perinatal period – the period of time from the twenty-eighth week of gestation to the seventh day of life outside the womb, is crucial for babies. Therefore, attending to the emotional and psychological well-being of the mother at this time is extremely important.

An investigation conducted by the University of California claims that chronic tension, discrimination, or depressive symptoms are related to the incidence of lower birth weight babies. Child development problems are also linked.

Consequently, it’s true that babies feel their mothers’ emotions from the womb. Not only that, they can affect them biologically if the mother suffers situations of prolonged stress.

Emotions don’t reach the baby’s placenta, the structure that provides it with oxygen and nutrients but hormones do. 

The messages that the baby receives in the womb

There are wonderful images of what a fetus experiences when its mother laughs. The uterus moves and the baby seems to swing in this small, fascinating, and safe universe. They both enjoy it, it’s an intense and joyful experience, that sends hormones linked to the feelings of well-being to the little one, such as serotonin and endorphins.

Although emotions don’t reach the baby through the facial expressions of the mother, they do reach them through her endocrine system. Particles enter the placenta itself and everything that the mother feels reverberates in the fetus. The connection between the two is so intense that it goes way beyond the umbilical cord.

On the other hand, this chemical and hormonal connection also has certain risks. That’s because not all the messages that the baby receives are positive. For this reason, it’s necessary to be alert when sadness, anguish, and permanent stress are experienced by the mother.

Untreated depression during pregnancy

Now we know that babies can experience their mother’s emotions in the womb, what happens if the mother suffers from untreated depression? This topic isn’t discussed enough. In fact, depressive disorders during pregnancy are a  common occurrence.

An investigation conducted by the Institute of Psychology and Neurosciences of Behavior, California (USA) claims that if mood disorders aren’t treated during pregnancy, there’s an increased risk of preterm labor and even stillbirth. Perinatal complications are a frequent occurrence in these cases.

Pregnant mother practices mindfulness thinking of herself Can babies feel their mothers' emotions from the womb?
Emotional care is an important aspect that every future mother shouldn’t forget.

The importance of emotional care during pregnancy

Taking care of diet during pregnancy is important. As is taking maternity leave and preparing for the baby’s arrival. However, the psychological aspects that go along with pregnancy shouldn’t be ignored. This isn’t necessarily easy.

  • Every woman deals with her pregnancy in an individual way. Furthermore, it’s not always an easy or incredibly happy period.
  • Beyond pregnancy, there are factors that always affect a woman’s emotional well-being. Work, the family environment, and the relationship with their partner are often sources of anxiety and stress.
  • Pregnancy itself can also promote changes in mood.
  • It’s important for the pregnant mother to always have support figures and people they can talk to, with whom they can be honest about what they feel at all times.

Perinatal psychologists are figures that can be approached at this particular time. The gestation period is also a preparation for the baby to face the outside world. Everything that happens in that safe space will also (partly) determine their further development.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Araki M, Nishitani S, Ushimaru K, Masuzaki H, Oishi K, Shinohara K. Fetal response to induced maternal emotions. J Physiol Sci. 2010 May;60(3):213-20. doi: 10.1007/s12576-010-0087-x. Epub 2010 Feb 19. PMID: 20169432.
  • Dunkel Schetter C, Tanner L. Anxiety, depression and stress in pregnancy: implications for mothers, children, research, and practice. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2012 Mar;25(2):141-8. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0b013e3283503680. PMID: 22262028; PMCID: PMC4447112.
  • Jahan N, Went TR, Sultan W, Sapkota A, Khurshid H, Qureshi IA, Alfonso M. Untreated Depression During Pregnancy and Its Effect on Pregnancy Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Cureus. 2021 Aug 17;13(8):e17251. doi: 10.7759/cureus.17251. PMID: 34540477; PMCID: PMC8448270.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.