Sex differences in fetal habituation

Peter Hepper, James R C Dornan, Catherine Lynch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


There is some evidence for sex differences in habituation in the human fetus, but it is unknown whether this is due to differences in central processing (habituation) or in more peripheral processes, sensory or motor, involved in the response. This study examined whether the sex of the fetus influenced auditory habituation at 33weeks of gestation, and whether this was due to differences in habituation or in the sensory or motor components using a set of four experiments. The first experiment found that female fetuses required significantly fewer stimulus presentations to habituate than males. The second experiment revealed no difference in the spontaneous motor behaviour of male and female fetuses. The third experiment examined auditory intensity thresholds for the stimuli used to habituate the fetus. No differences in thresholds were found between males and females, although there was inter-individual variability in thresholds. A final experiment, using stimuli individualized for that particular fetus' auditory intensity threshold, found that female fetuses habituated faster than males. In combination, the studies reveal that habituation in the human fetus is affected by sex and this is due to a difference in central 'information processing' of the stimuli rather than peripheral aspects of the response. It is argued that male and female fetuses present different neurobehavioural developmental trajectories, with females more advanced at 33weeks than males. This study suggests that research examining prenatal behaviour should consider the factor of fetal sex. This may be particularly pertinent where there is an intention to use the results diagnostically. © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-383
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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