Human Pregnancy and Birth

Section 2: Human Gestation

Twenty-four hours before fertilization, the egg has finished meiosis and becomes a mature oocyte. When fertilized (at conception) the egg becomes known as a zygote. The zygote travels through the oviduct to the uterus (Figure). The developing embryo must implant into the wall of the uterus within seven days, or it will deteriorate and die. The outer layers of the zygote (blastocyst) grow into the endometrium by digesting the endometrial cells, and wound healing of the endometrium closes up the blastocyst into the tissue. Another layer of the blastocyst, the chorion, begins releasing a hormone called human beta chorionic gonadotropin (β-HCG) which makes its way to the corpus luteum and keeps that structure active. This ensures adequate levels of progesterone that will maintain the endometrium of the uterus for the support of the developing embryo. Pregnancy tests determine the level of β-HCG in urine or serum. If the hormone is present, the test is positive.

 Upon ovulation, an oocyte is released from the ovary and enters the fallopian tubule. Fertilization by a sperm occurs at day zero, resulting in a single-celled zygote. Around day two, the zygote undergoes cell division. More cell divisions occur on the third and fourth day, resulting in four-cell and eight-cell stages. By this time the cell mass has traveled to the end of the fallopian tube. Around day five the cell mass enters the uterus and differentiates into a blastocyst that is hollow inside, with an inner cell mass off to one side. The layer of cells on the outside of the blastocyst is called the trophoblast. Around day eight or nine the blastocyst implants in the wall of the uterus, with the inner cell mass facing the wall.
In humans, fertilization occurs soon after the oocyte leaves the ovary. Implantation occurs eight or nine days later.(credit: Ed Uthman)

The gestation period is divided into three equal periods or trimesters. During the first two to four weeks of the first trimester, nutrition and waste are handled by the endometrial lining through diffusion. As the trimester progresses, the outer layer of the embryo begins to merge with the endometrium, and the placenta forms. This organ takes over the nutrient and waste requirements of the embryo and fetus, with the mother’s blood passing nutrients to the placenta and removing waste from it. Chemicals from the fetus, such as bilirubin, are processed by the mother’s liver for elimination. Some of the mother’s immunoglobulins will pass through the placenta, providing passive immunity against some potential infections.

Internal organs and body structures begin to develop during the first trimester. By five weeks, limb buds, eyes, the heart, and liver have been basically formed. By eight weeks, the term fetus applies, and the body is essentially formed, as shown in Figure. The individual is about five centimeters (two inches) in length and many of the organs, such as the lungs and liver, are not yet functioning. Exposure to any toxins is especially dangerous during the first trimester, as all of the body’s organs and structures are going through initial development. Anything that affects that development can have a severe effect on the fetus’ survival.

Photo shows a human fetus, with a large bent head and a dark eye, fingers on its arm and a leg bud. The spine is visible through the back, and the stomach protrudes out as far as the leg bud.
Fetal development is shown at nine weeks gestation. (credit: Ed Uthman)

During the second trimester, the fetus grows to about 30 cm (12 inches), as shown in Figure. It becomes active and the mother usually feels the first movements. All organs and structures continue to develop. The placenta has taken over the functions of nutrition and waste and the production of estrogen and progesterone from the corpus luteum, which has degenerated. The placenta will continue functioning up through the delivery of the baby.

The second trimester fetus has long arms and legs, and is attached to the placenta, which is round and larger than the fetus.
This fetus is just entering the second trimester, when the placenta takes over more of the functions performed as the baby develops. (credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine)

During the third trimester, the fetus grows to 3 to 4 kg (6 ½ -8 ½ lbs.) and about 50 cm (19-20 inches) long, as illustrated in Figure. This is the period of the most rapid growth during the pregnancy. Organ development continues to birth (and some systems, such as the nervous system and liver, continue to develop after birth). The mother will be at her most uncomfortable during this trimester. She may urinate frequently due to pressure on the bladder from the fetus. There may also be intestinal blockage and circulatory problems, especially in her legs. Clots may form in her legs due to pressure from the fetus on returning veins as they enter the abdominal cavity.

Illustration shows a third trimester fetus, which is a fully developed baby. The fetus is up-side down and pressing on the cervix. The thick umbilical cord extends from the fetus’s belly to the uterine wall.
There is rapid fetal growth during the third trimester. (credit: modification of work by Gray’s Anatomy)

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