Facial dysmorphism provides important clues suggesting chromosomal or genetic abnormalities (e.g. Jones & Smith 1988). The postnatal diagnosis, of prenatally detectable facial dimorphism (Benacerraff, 1998) based one or more facial features such as low set ears, small orbits or micrognathia is associated with over 250 syndromes. Research has examined not only the association of disproportionate growth of fetal facial features (Jones 1988) but also the movement quality of these features. For example, jerky limb movements have been associated with prenatal stress (e.g. Reissland & Francis, 2010). Morokuma, et. al. (2007) found that qualitative assessment of fetal movements predicts not only brain dysfunction but also points to specific lesion sites in the central nervous system of compromised fetuses. Understanding the relationship between normal development of fetal facial movements, facial expression and oro-motor function will open vital new opportunities to promote infant health.
Hypothesis Since understanding of normal neuromaturation of the fetus allows for the identification of abnormal patters of development (Allen 2005) our newly developed method (e.g., Reissland et al 2011) could serve as a roadmap of normal development of fetal facial movements from 24-36 weeks gestation.
Results In 15 healthy fetuses we found analysing the occurrence of 19 facial movements (Action Units) that at 24 weeks gestation all fetuses showed single action units. With increasing gestational age fetuses showed 2 action units together then 3, 4 and 5, β= 0.367, s.e.=0.035, p<0.001. All fetuses were healthy at birth.
Implications Increased complexity facial movements is a potential indicator for healthy fetal development.
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