Imperial College London

How science is unlocking the secrets of babies' bodies, minds and behaviour

by ,

Picture of a newborn baby

As the royal family celebrates the birth of a baby boy, we take a look at research into mother and child health at Imperial.

He may be third in line the throne but the newborn royal is also just one of 2,000 babies born in the UK, and one of around 370,000 born in the world, each day. Research at Imperial aims to understand how babies develop before and after birth, to ensure they get the healthiest start in life.

Womb to manoeuvre

Dr Niamh Nowlan from the Department of Bioengineering and her collaborators are developing a sensor to track babies’ movements when they start kicking in the womb, from around 16 weeks.

Some expectant mothers say they feel more kicks, or stronger kicks, than others but scientists do not know exactly how to interpret these differences. The aim of the sensor is to objectively measure and record fetal movement. Dr Nowlan and her team will see how these measurements compare with the babies’ bone development after birth.

Recently Dr Nowlan’s lab has been awarded a grant from the European Research Council to study developmental dysplasia of the hip, known colloquially as ‘clickedy hips’. This condition occurs when the thigh bone does not slot into the hip joint properly and affects around one in 200 babies. The research will examine whether reduced movements in the womb could increase the risk of babies developing the problem.


Professor Daniel Rueckert is one of four researchers conducting a study into babies’ brain development. He is joining colleagues at King’s College London and Oxford University to map how brains grow from 20 weeks of pregnancy through to around two years of age.

The team will ultimately scan 1,500 babies, enabling them to create a picture of how babies’ brains develop and form connections. They will compare babies who go on to develop conditions like autism with those who do not and look for clues about how they might help children in the future.

Effects of anxiety

Stress or anxiety experienced by the mother during pregnancy can also have an effect on how a child develops, according to research by Professor Vivette Glover.

Her research indicates that children whose mothers suffer the most severe stress during pregnancy have up to double the risk of developing an emotional or behavioural problem, around a 12 per cent risk.

The research reveals that maternal stress can cause biological changes in the placenta’s ability to filter the blood that passes from the mother to the baby.

“Social support is very important and the relationship with the partner is key. If the partner is supportive then this is a good buffer against problems,” said Professor Glover.



Mike Jones

Mike Jones

Click to expand or contract

Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3891

Show all stories by this author

Kerry Noble

Kerry Noble
Department of Surgery & Cancer

Click to expand or contract

Contact details


Show all stories by this author


Imaging, Research, Brain, Child-health, Pregnancy
See more tags

Leave a comment

Your comment may be published, displaying your name as you provide it, unless you request otherwise. Your contact details will never be published.