"I heard the baby cry this week," the prenatal patient remarked casually as I took her blood pressure.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I was lying on the couch reading a book after dinner, when I heard the baby crying," she explained, gesturing towards her belly. "For about a minute." She reported this in the same offhand way in which she had mentioned her heartburn earlier.
Of course I was skeptical. Crying is an inspiration followed by a series of convulsive expirations, where sound is produced by the air causing the vocal folds to vibrate. But there is no air in utero. The fetus 'breathes' amniotic fluid.
I generated some possible explanations. Maybe the sound was borborygmi. The television. A neighbour. The cat. A hallucination (I didn't suggest that one outright).
But the patient was adamant. She knew what she heard, and it was her baby crying in the womb.
The strange thing is, I've heard this story from patients before.
And so I did a bit of research, and found that ultrasonic evidence of crying behaviour in utero in the third trimester is well-documented in the medical literature. And the Discovery Channel has this remarkable video of a fetus crying:
However, the 'crying' refers to the series of motor events that occur. Not the sound. If there weren't an ultrasound probe letting us peek into the uterus, there'd be no indication a baby was bawling in there. It's inaudible.
There is one rare scenario where a mother can hear her unborn baby crying: vagitus uterinus. Literally "squalling uterus," the phenomenon is the audible crying of the fetus in utero when the membranes have ruptured and air has entered the uterus.
The British Medical Journal published a letter describing the phenomenon in 1933, by Dr. Matthiasson of Iceland, who attended a birth in 1908 where he, the midwife and the medical student witnessed uterine crying in a labouring woman: ". . . there was no doubt as to the origin of the crying. It sounded pitiful, and was much like the crying of a newborn child hidden under . . . an eiderdown."
I wonder how that would be for the mother - terribly bizarre, or a wonderful motivator?
It would certainly make for the best labour and delivery story ever.