These Moms Gave Birth in an MRI Machine So We Can See How Babies' Heads Change Shape in Labor

Scientists hope to determine why some babies' heads have trouble molding during the birth process, which can result in long-term brain development issues. These laboring moms bravely volunteered to give birth in a less ideal environment to help solve the mystery.

baby head mri
Photo: Dr Olivier Ami - CHU Clermont Ferrand, France

During a vaginal birth, the shape of a baby's head changes during delivery. It's why so many babies come out with elongated and misshapen heads. Doctors refer to this process as fetal head molding, and while they've been aware of it for as long as babies have been being born, it's only now that they're able to see it in real-time using 3D MRI images.

A team of researchers at University Hospital Center in Clermont-Ferrand, France conducted a study on seven women who volunteered to give birth inside an MRI machine. These moms-to-be were all between the ages 23 and 34 and expected to have healthy, vaginal deliveries. Five of the seven women ended up having children born by vaginal delivery, and two required emergency C-sections.

baby head birth in mri
Dr Olivier Ami - CHU Clermont Ferrand, France

The 3D images taken during delivery showed that none of the seven babies had overlapping cranial bones when they were in the womb, but during the second stage of labor, they all exhibited fetal head molding where parts of their skulls overlapped. After delivery, five out of seven of the babies' heads shifted back to their normal, pre-delivery shape. That demonstrates just how flexible babies' heads really are at this stage, the study authors noted.

Doctors were surprised to see how much the brain was impacted during delivery. "When we showed the fetal head changing shape, we discovered that we had underestimated a lot of the brain compression during birth," study author Olivier Ami, M.D., told NBC News.

baby head mri model
Dr Olivier Ami - CHU Clermont Ferrand, France

In most cases, babies can endure this type of trauma without any issues. Rarely though, problems can occur unexpectedly. As Dr. Ami put it, "Sometimes there are brain hemorrhages, and we don't know where (they) are coming from."

baby born in mri
Dr Olivier Ami - CHU Clermont Ferrand, France

The hope of this study is that doctors can determine before delivery which babies' heads might have trouble molding during the birth process. "When that happens, the baby can have long-term brain development issues, like cerebral palsy," Hany Aly, M.D., chair of the department of neonatology at Cleveland Clinic Children's, told NBC News.

Additional research is needed, though, which means more brave, awesome women will need to volunteer to give birth in MRI machines. On behalf of science (and families everywhere), we thank you in advance.

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