Prenatal and postnatal physiology


During gestation, the fetus undergoes numerous physiological changes. Nutrients and oxygen must be consistently supplied to the fetus to support organ development. In the fetus, gas exchange occurs in the placenta, not in the lungs. In the fetal circulation, blood and nutrients from the placenta are delivered through the umbilical vein and deoxygenated blood is removed through the umbilical arteries and directed back into the maternal circulation. The oxygenated blood in the umbilical vein flows to the right atrium and is shunted to the left atrium through an interatrial opening (foramen ovale), bypassing the non-functional lung. In the newborn infant, closure of the right to left shunt occurs after pulmonary respiration begins and the umbilical cord is removed, enabling the neonate to cope with the extrauterine environment.

Fetal physiology

The fetal period begins in week 9 of gestation and continues until birth. After the rudimentary structure of the organs is established in the embryonic period (weeks 1–8), the organs begin to grow and differentiate.

Fetal length can be determined on ultrasound starting from week 9 of development by measuring the crown-rump length (CRL). The CRL in centimeters is roughly equal to the square of the month of gestation!

The fetal period

All of the tissues and organs created during the embryonic period grow and differentiate during the fetal period (week 9 of development until birth). This period is initially characterized by a dramatic increase in fetal size and, from the sixth month onwards, a sharp increase in fetal weight. Fetal body parts do not all grow at the same rate. Head growth, in particular, lags behind the growth of the rest of the body.

For more detailed information on embryonic development (first eight weeks after fertilization), see “Embryogenesis”.

Weeks of development Characteristics
Weeks 9–12
  • Intestinal loops return to the abdominal cavity in week 10.
  • First breathing movements (week 11)
  • The liver is replaced by the spleen as the primary site of hematopoiesis (week 12).
  • Fetal sex can be identified (week 12).
  • Despite a decline in head growth and doubling of the crown-rump length by the end of week 12, the head remains disproportionately large.
Weeks 13–16
  • Start of coordinated movement of the arms and legs (week 14)
  • As a result of active ossification, fetal bones are visible on ultrasound (week 16).
Weeks 17–20
  • Fetal movements become noticeable.
Weeks 21–25
  • Premature infants can theoretically survive from week 22.
  • Surfactant secretion, which keeps the alveoli open, begins (week 20–22).
  • Ductal development of the alveoli begins.
Weeks 26–29
Weeks 30–34
Weeks 35–38
  • The fetus is fully mature at 37 weeks of gestation.
  • Septation of air sacs

Fetal circulation

Fetal circulation must meet the needs of the fetus with the maternal placental supply, as it cannot rely on pulmonary respiration. It must also adapt rapidly to postnatal conditions. While the heart begins contracting in a coordinated manner at the end of week 4, resulting in directed blood flow, development of the fetal circulation extends up to week 9. In fetal circulation, delivery of oxygenated blood and clearance of deoxygenated blood follows the route described below.

Oxygenated blood

Deoxygenated blood

The umbilical vein transports oxygenated blood from the placenta towards the fetal heart, whereas the umbilical arteries direct deoxygenated blood from the fetus to the placenta.

Because of high resistance in the pulmonary trunk, pressure on the right side of the circulation is on average higher than that on the left side.

Fetal organ function

Fetal circulation and organ function differ considerably from that of a child or adult. Nutrient and gas exchange takes place in the fetoplacental unit. The lungs are not ventilated and are poorly perfused. Other organ functions also develop gradually during the course of prenatal development, some even after birth. The table below provides an overview of the differences between fetal and postnatal organ function. Organ development is not discussed, but can be found in the articles on the individual organs.

Organ Overview of functional development
Endocrine system
Blood and immune system

In the event of complications during pregnancy with the risk of premature birth, lung maturity of the newborn can be induced to avoid or reduce postnatal regulation disorders. In such cases, the mother receives two intramuscular injections of glucocorticoids within 24 hours. As a result, the maturation of pneumocytes, which produce surfactant, is accelerated. This procedure is indicated in preterm infants whose lungs are not yet fully mature (weeks 33–34).References:[2]

Neonatal physiology

After birth, the bypass pathways of the fetal circulation close to accommodate pulmonary respiration and the cutting of the umbilical cord. After placental circulation is interrupted at birth, the newborn takes its first breath of air. The neonate must now regulate their own circulation, respiration, metabolism, and temperature, which require a series of adaptations. These processes progress smoothly in ∼ 95% of newborns, while the remaining ∼ 5% have regulation disorders. For this reason, vital signs should be monitored and assessed with the Apgar score. The newborn's glucose levels and body temperature should be monitored as well.

For signs of maturity in the newborn infant, see assessment of the newborn.

Circulatory and respiratory adaptation of the newborn infant

  • Initiation: start of pulmonary respiration (after cutting the umbilical cord)
  • Lung ventilation: first breaths → alveoli are filled with air lungs inflate → change in pressure conditions
Process Postnatal remnant
Closure of the ductus arteriosus
Closure of the foramen ovale
Closure of the umbilical arteries
  • Contraction of the umbilical arteries to prevent blood loss
  • Obliteration within 2–3 months
Closure of the umbilical vein
  • Initially remains open after birth
Closure of the ductus venosus

FEEtal patency of the ductus arteriosus is maintained by prostaglandins E1 and E2.

Other postnatal structures that derive from fetal structures include the urachus, which becomes the median umbilical ligament, and the notochord, the center of development of the axial skeleton, which becomes the nucleus pulposus of intervertebral discs in adults.



  • Normal body temperature of the newborn infant: 36.5–37.5 °C (97.7–99.5°F)
  • Changes: Large body surface area to weight ratio and loss of intrauterine warmth contribute to heat loss.
  • Adaptation

Newborn infants with regulation disorders especially depend on exogenous protection against cooling!References:[2]

  • 1. Lautt WW. Hepatic Circulation. Morgan & Claypool Publishers; 2009.
  • 2. Morton SU, Brodsky D. Fetal physiology and the transition to extrauterine life. Clin Perinatol. 2016; 43(3): pp. 395–407. doi: 10.1016/j.clp.2016.04.001.
last updated 11/03/2020
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