Stages of Prenatal Development

stages of prenatal development
Illustration by Katie Kerpel. © Verywell, 2017.
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While you might think of child development as something that begins during infancy, the prenatal period is also considered an important part of the developmental process. Prenatal development is a time of remarkable change that helps set the stage for future psychological development. The brain develops over the course of the prenatal period, but it will continue to go through more changes during the early years of childhood

The process of prenatal development occurs in three main stages. The first two weeks after conception are known as the germinal stage, the third through the eighth week is known as the embryonic period, and the time from the ninth week until birth is known as the fetal period.

Germinal Stage

The germinal stage begins at conception when the sperm and egg cell unite in one of the two fallopian tubes. The fertilized egg is called a zygote. Just a few hours after conception, the single-celled zygote begins making a journey down the fallopian tube to the uterus.

Cell division begins approximately 24 to 36 hours after conception. Through the process of mitosis, the zygote first divides into two cells, then into four, eight, sixteen, and so on. A significant number of zygotes never progress past this early part of cell division, with as many as half of all zygotes surviving less than two weeks.

Once the eight-cell point has been reached, the cells begin to differentiate and take on certain characteristics that will determine the type of cells they will eventually become. As the cells multiply, they will also separate into two distinctive masses: the outer cells will eventually become the placenta, while the inner cells form the embryo.

Cell division continues at a rapid rate during the approximately week-long journey from fallopian tube to uterus wall. The cells develop into what is known as a blastocyst. The blastocyst is made up of three layers, each of which develops into different structures in the body.

  1. Ectoderm: Skin and nervous system
  2. Endoderm: Digestive and respiratory systems
  3. Mesoderm: Muscle and skeletal systems

Finally, the blastocyst arrives at the uterus and attaches to the uterine wall, a process known as implantation. Implantation occurs when the cells nestle into the uterine lining and rupture tiny blood vessels. The connective web of blood vessels and membranes that form between them will provide nourishment for the developing being for the next nine months. Implantation is not always an automatic and sure-fire process.

Researchers estimate that approximately 60% of all natural conceptions never become properly implanted in the uterus, which results in the new life ending before the mother is ever aware she is pregnant.

When implantation is successful, hormonal changes halt the normal menstrual cycle and cause a whole host of physical changes. For some people, activities they previously enjoyed such as smoking and drinking alcohol or coffee may become less palatable, possibly part of nature’s way of protecting the growing life inside them.

Embryonic Stage

At this point, the mass of cells is now known as an embryo. The beginning of the third week after conception marks the start of the embryonic period, a time when the mass of cells becomes distinct as a human. The embryonic stage plays an important role in the development of the brain. 

Approximately four weeks after conception, the neural tube forms. This tube will later develop into the central nervous system including the spinal cord and brain. The neural tube begins to form along with an area known as the neural plate. The earliest signs of development of the neural tube are the emergence of two ridges that form along each side of the neural plate.

Over the next few days, more ridges form and fold inward until a hollow tube is formed. Once this tube is fully formed, cells begin to form near the center. The tube begins to close and brain vesicles form. These vesicles will eventually develop into parts of the brain, including the structures of the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain.​

Around the fourth week, the head begins to form, quickly followed by the eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. The blood vessel that will become the heart start to pulse. During the fifth week, buds that will form the arms and legs appear.

By the eighth week of development, the embryo has all of the basic organs and parts except those of the sex organs. At this point, the embryo weighs just one gram and is about one inch in length.

By the end of the embryonic period, the basic structures of the brain and central nervous system have been established. At this point, the basic structure of the peripheral nervous system is also defined.

The production of neurons, or brain cells, begins around day 42 after conception and is mostly complete sometime around the middle of pregnancy.

As neurons form, they migrate to different areas of the brain. Once they have reached the correct location, they begin to form connections with other neural cells, establishing rudimentary neural networks.

Fetal Stage

Once cell differentiation is mostly complete, the embryo enters the next stage and becomes known as a fetus. The fetal period of prenatal develop marks more important changes in the brain. This period of development begins during the ninth week and lasts until birth. This stage is marked by amazing change and growth.

The early body systems and structures established in the embryonic stage continue to develop. The neural tube develops into the brain and spinal cord and neurons continue to form. Once these neurons have formed, they begin to migrate to their correct locations. Synapses, or the connections between neurons, also begin to develop.

Between the ninth and twelfth week of gestation (at the earliest), reflexes begin to emerge. The fetus begins to make reflexive motions with its arms and legs.

During the third month of gestation, the sex organs begin to differentiate. By the end of the month, all parts of the body will be formed. At this point, the fetus weighs around three ounces. The fetus continues to grow in both weight and length, although the majority of the physical growth occurs in the later stages of pregnancy.

The end of the third month also marks the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. During the second trimester, or months four through six, the heartbeat grows stronger and other body systems become further developed. Fingernails, hair, eyelashes, and toenails form. Perhaps most noticeably, the fetus increases about six times in size.

So what's going on inside the brain during this important period of prenatal development? The brain and central nervous system also become more responsive during the second trimester. Around 28 weeks, the brain starts to mature faster, with an activity that greatly resembles that of a sleeping newborn.

During the period from seven months until birth, the fetus continues to develop, put on weight, and prepare for life outside the womb. The lungs begin to expand and contract, preparing the muscles for breathing.

While development usually follows this normal pattern, there are times when problems with prenatal development occur. Disease, malnutrition, and other prenatal influences can have a powerful impact on how the brain develops during this critical period.

A Word From Verywell

Brain development does not end at birth. A considerable amount of brain development takes place postnatally, including growing in size and volume while changing in structure. The brain quadruples in size between birth and preschool. As children learn and have new experiences, some networks in the brain are strengthened while other connections are pruned.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institutes of Health. What are stem cells, and why are they important?. Updated 2016.

  2. Flaxman SM, Sherman PW. Morning sickness: A mechanism for protecting mother and embryo. Q Rev Biol. 2000;75(2):113-48. doi:10.1086/393377

  3. 13.1 The Embryologic Perspective. In: Anatomy and Physiology. Rice University.

  4. 28.3 Fetal Development. In Anatomy and Physiology. Rice University.

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health. Stages of pregnancy. Updated April 18, 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Levine LE, Munsch J. Child Development: An Active Learning Approach. SAGE Publications, 2010.

  • Shaffer DR, Kipp K. Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence. Wadsworth, 2010.

  • Stiles J, Jernigan TL. The basics of brain development. Neuropsychol Rev. 2010;20(4):327-48. doi:10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4