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Prenatal Form and Function – The Making of an Earth Suit


Unit 8:   7 to 8 Weeks

  Closer Look: 
  Applying the Science: 
Play Movie - Human embryo 7 to 8 weeks
Movie 8.1 - 7 to 8 Weeks
Just 7½ weeks after fertilization, the embryo is already kicking inside the womb – a skill which some will later perfect.

From 7 to 7½ weeks, tendons attach leg muscles to bones,1 and knee joints appear.2 Also by 7½ weeks, the hands can be brought together, as can the feet.3 The embryo also kicks, and will jump if startled.4

Also by 7 to 7½ weeks, nephrons, the basic filtration units in the kidneys, begin to form.

 7 weeks 4 days Embryo intestines, physiologic herniation
Figure 8.1 - Intestines (Physiologic Herniation)
The intestines of this 7½-week embryo are easily seen in the base of the umbilical cord. The loops in the adult intestine are strikingly similar.
The Biology of Prenatal Development DVD
Copyright © 2006 EHD, Inc. All rights reserved.
Adult Digestive System: Liver, Stomach, Small Intestine, Large Intestine, Colon
Figure 8.2 - Adult Digestive System
Copyright © 2002 Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.
Mother Feeding Baby

By 8 weeks peristalsis (per-i-stal’sis)5 begins in the embryo’s large intestine, a process which will continue throughout life. This alternating contraction and relaxation of the intestine wall is essential for proper digestion as it propels ingested food and fluids in the right direction through the intestine. Peristalsis also causes the release of gastrointestinal tract contents into the amniotic fluid in which the embryo floats.6The kidneys begin to produce urine, which is then released into the amniotic fluid.7

After swallowing our food, contractions of muscle within the intestine help push our food forward – an ability already developing in the 8-week embryo. Nephrons in the kidneys filter toxins out of the blood stream. Toxins then flow from the kidneys into the bladder and eventually out of the body. In the male embryo, developing testes begin to produce and release testosterone.8

Open PDF version of FIG 8.3,  External Features and Nervous System of the 30mm Embryo
Figure 8.3 - External Features (A) and Nervous System (B) of the 30mm Embryo [PDF version of FIG 8.3]
From Gasser RF, 1975, 243. Atlas of Human Embryos. Copyright © 1975 RF Gasser, PhD. All rights reserved.

Play Movie - Fingers and Toes
Movie 8.2 - Fingers and Toes
Play Movie - Joining Hands
Movie 8.3 - Joining Hands

A Summary of Hand and Foot Development

Fingers of the 7 weeks 4 days embryo.
Figure 8.4 - Fingers Free
Note the distinct fingers almost touching in this 7½- week embryo.
The Biology of Prenatal Development DVD
Copyright © 2006 EHD, Inc. All rights reserved.
baby hand fingers thumb
4 Weeks 5 Weeks 6 Weeks
Upper and lower limb buds appear Hand plates Subtle flattening develops in hand plates
6 Weeks, 2 Days 6 Weeks, 6 Days 7 Weeks
Hands assume a distinct polygon shape; Foot plates rounded Feet assume a distinct polygon shape Moderate notching present between emerging fingers
7 ½ Weeks 8 Weeks 10 Weeks
Fingers separate; Hands and feet come together; Moderate notching between toes Fingers and toes distinct; Toes separate Fingernails and toenails begin; Fingerprints form
7 weeks 3 days Embryo toes, notched toes, embryo feet, embryo foot
Figure 8.5 - Notched Toes
Note the notching between the emerging toes of this 7½ week embryo.
The Biology of Prenatal Development DVD
Copyright © 2006 EHD, Inc. All rights reserved.
Baby feet, toes, foot

Brain of 8 week embryo
Figure 8.6 - Brain
Here we can see the brain, now making up 43% of the embryo’s weight.
The Biology of Prenatal Development DVD
Copyright © 2006 EHD, Inc. All rights reserved.
Play Movie - The Highly Developed Brain
Movie 8.4 - The Highly Complex Brain

By 8 weeks the brain is highly developed9 and makes up approximately 43 percent of the embryo’s total weight.10 Growth continues at an extraordinary rate. One of the major control centers for the body - the hypothalamus - begins to take form. The hypothalamus eventually controls body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, fluid balance, and the secretion of vitally important hormones by the pituitary gland.11

Our body’s temperature is regulated by the hypothalamus – an important structure which begins developing within the 8-week embryo’s brain.

Play Movie - Spontaneous Movement
Movie 8.5 - Spontaneous Movement
Play Movie - Reflexive Movement
Movie 8.6 - Reflexive Movement
Baby Squinting
All those squinting expressions actually begin long before birth – first appearing in the 8-week embryo!

Slowly or rapidly, singularly or repetitively, spontaneously or reflexively, the embryo continues to practice the movements begun earlier and to move in new ways. Frequently, hands will touch the face and the head will turn.12 The many muscles of the face are now largely well developed in preparation for the complex facial expressions to follow.13 Touching the embryo can produce squinting, jaw movement, grasping motions, and toe pointing.14

Baby Rolling Over
Rolling over on daddy’s belly is much harder than rolling over inside a mommy’s belly in the buoyant, fluid-filled amniotic sac.
Play Movie - Rolling Over
Movie 8.7 - Rolling Over

Pediatric textbooks describe the ability to “roll over” as appearing between 10 and 20 weeks after birth for most infants.15 The fetus, however, displays this impressive coordination long before birth as shown in The Biology of Prenatal Development DVD. The low gravity environment of the fluid-filled amniotic sac16 resting in the uterus makes this maneuver possible. Only the lack of strength required to overcome the higher gravitational force outside the uterus prevents newborns from rolling over.17

Play Movie - Eyelid Fusion
Movie 8.8 - Eyelid Fusion
Play Movie - Eyes and Eyelids
Movie 8.9 - Eyes and Eyelids
eyelids fuse, 8 week embryo
Figure 8.7 - Eyelids Fuse
Notice this embryo’s eyelid is nearly fused together and will remain closed from around 8½ weeks until approximately 24 to 26 weeks.
The Biology of Prenatal Development DVD
Copyright © 2006 EHD, Inc. All rights reserved.

Between 7 and 8 weeks the upper and lower eyelids grow rapidly and begin to fuse together, giving the eyes a nearly closed appearance by 8 weeks.18 The eyelids are easily visible and by 7½ weeks are poised to enter a stage of rapid growth covering the surface of the deeply pigmented eyes.19

Eye Collage
Brown eyes, blues eyes, green eyes! Our eyes begin forming early and develop into many shades!
Eye Development Summary
Week 4 Week 5 Week 8 Week 9 Week 10
Lens placode, optic vesicles, optic cup Pigments in retina Upper and lower eyelids fuse together Eyes completely shut Eyes move
Weeks 16-18 Weeks 18- 21 Week 25 Week 26 Week 27
Layers of retina forming Rapid eye movements begin Rods and cones begin to form; eyes open Eyes open, produce tears Pupils respond to light

Play Movie - Right- & Left- Handedness
Movie 8.10 - Right- & Left- Handedness

Righty or Lefty

Scientists say: "Whatever the causal link and subsequent development of behavioral laterality and asymmetric brain function, lateralized behavior is present possibly from as early as it is possible to observe such behavior. This suggests from our earliest embryonic origins, lateralized behavior is a prominent feature and a potentially powerful influence on subsequent behavioral and structural development."1


First some definitions: lateral means side, so "behavior laterality" means using one side or the other—here, using the right or left hand. Subsequent means following, and asymmetric is when two halves don't match. Scientists see embryos choosing to use one hand more than the other, and observe that the sides of the brain develop in the same lopsided way. Scientists used to believe that the brain developed differently on either side, and this caused hand preference. Now we're learning more and more about how behavior influences brain development, and now scientists wonder if the increased use of one hand causes the lopsided brain, instead of vice-versa. Whichever comes first probably has genetic roots, although scientists aren't really sure about that either. We do know that by eight weeks after fertilization, the division between righties and lefties is underway.

Girl in school

Though our culture caters to right-handers like this little girl – look behind her and remember there are lefties out there too!

1Peter G. Hepper, Glenda R. McCartney, and E. Alyson Shannon, "Lateralised Behavior in First Trimester Human Foetuses," Neuropsychologia, Vol. 36, No. 6 (1998), 533.


The earliest sign of right- or left-handedness begins around eight weeks, with 75 percent of embryos already exhibiting right arm dominance. Left hand dominance and no preference comprise the other 25 percent.20

Right Hand Preference
Already reaching with her right hand, this little girl’s right-handed preference actually began in the womb.

By the end of the embryonic period, the total number of heart beats reaches approximately 7.39 million! This large number is but a fraction of the number of times the heart beats during an entire lifetime.

The Embryo’s Beating Heart 21

Week # Average Heart rate
(Beats per Minute)
Running Total
4 113 1,139,040
5 131 2,459,520
6 150 3,971,520
7 170 5,685,120
8 169 7,388,965
(The heart beats approximately 7.4 million times during the embryonic period)
heartbeat Click here to try the heartbeat calculator!

Play Movie - Breathing Motions
Movie 8.11 - Breathing Motions
Boy Swimming
Inside the womb, the fetus practices “breathing motions” by inhaling fluid. After birth you will quickly find that you have lost this ability and must inhale air.

Stem cells produced in the liver now produce other cell types, including B lymphocytes and erythrocytes or red blood cells.22 Erythrocytes deliver oxygen to all tissues of the body and collect carbon dioxide for removal – functions they will fulfill throughout life.


The diaphragm muscle is completely formed by eight weeks23 and intermittent breathing motions begin.24

Tennis Player
In a single game of tennis, we use all our joints including our elbows, shoulders, knees, hips and wrists. These joints are very similar to adult joints just 8 weeks after fertilization.
Embryo Ribs, 8 weeks
Figure 8.8 - Ribs
This 8-week embryo’s ribs will soon begin to harden.
The Biology of Prenatal Development DVD
Copyright © 2006 EHD, Inc. All rights reserved.

Day by day, the embryo’s bones grow. The ribs now have cartilage25 and the shafts of the long bones (in the arms and legs) begin to harden.26 The joints of the embryo already resemble adult joints in structure,27 with the elbows and the knees apparent.28 Formation of wrist ligaments begins.29

Play Movie - Epidermis and Hair
Movie 8.12 - Epidermis and Hair
man smiling, eyebrows
Your eyebrows - often a very defining part of appearance - begin to grow long before birth.

At 8 weeks, the embryo’s internal organs, before easily visible through the thin skin, become relatively hidden as the epidermis becomes a two-layered membrane.30 On the skin, eyebrows begin to appear along with fine hairs around the mouth.31

surprised scientist
Did you really say 90% of the structures found in the adult are present at the end of the embryonic period?!! The embryo may still be small, but it sure is complex!

8 weeks marks the end of the embryonic period. During this time, the human embryo has grown from a single cell into nearly 1 billion cells32 forming over 4000 distinct anatomic structures. The embryo now possesses more than 90 percent of the structures found in the adult.33

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7 to 8

1 Bareither, 1995. 758-759.
2 Moore et al., 1994. Figure 2-23 A & B, 54-55; O'Rahilly and Gardner, 1975. 11; O'Rahilly and Müller, 1987. 262.
3 Moore et al., 1994. Table 2-1, 61; O'Rahilly and Müller, 1987. 257; Streeter, 1951. 191.
4 de Vries et al., 1988. 96; Goodlin, 1979. D-128; Visser et al., 1992. Figure 1, 176.
5 Grand et al., 1976. 806; Pace, 1971. 77-80;
6 Pringle, 1988. 177.
7 Moore and Persaud, 2003. 288, 292; O'Rahilly and Müller, 2001. 304; Windle, 1940. 118.
8 Cunningham et al., 1993. 195; Moore and Persaud, 2003. 307; Waters and Trainer, 1996. 16-17.
9 O'Rahilly and Müller, 1999a. 288.
10 Jordaan, 1979. Table 1, 149.
11 Noback et al., 1996. 291-304.
12 de Vries et al., 1982. Figure 9, 311.
13 Gasser, 1967. 372.
14 Cunningham FG et al., 2001. 149; Humphrey, 1970. 19; Humphrey, 1964. 102.
15 Bates, 1987. 534.
16 de Vries et al., 1982. 320; Goodlin and Lowe, 1974. 348; Humphrey, 1970. 8.
17 de Vries et al., 1982. 320; Liley, 1972. 101; Liley, 1986. 11.
18 Andersen et al., 1965. 648-649; Moore et al., 1994. 53, 59; O'Rahilly, 1966. 36-37; O'Rahilly and Müller, 1987. 261.
19 Andersen et al., 1965. 646; O'Rahilly, 1966. 35; O'Rahilly and Müller, 1987. 259; O'Rahilly, 1966. 25; Pearson, 1980. 39; Streeter, 1951. 193.
20 Hepper et al., 1998. 531; McCartney and Hepper, 1999. 86.
21See Appendix A.
22 Glager and Naiman, 1991. 798; Nunez et al., 1996. 866.
23 de Vries et al., 1982. 320.
24 Connors et al., 1989. 932; de Vries et al., 1982. 311; McCray, 1993. 579; Visser et al., 1992. 177.
25 Moore and Persaud, 2003. 388.
26 Moore and Persaud, 2003. 395-396.
27 Gray et al., 1957. 169-223; Moore and Persaud, 2003. 385; O'Rahilly and Gardner, 1975. 15; O'Rahilly, 1957. 456-61.
28 Moore et al., 1994. 52-55.
29 Mérida-Velasco et al., 1996. 114.
30 Hogg, 1941. 407; Pringle, 1988. 178.
31 Hogg, 1941. 387; O'Rahilly and Müller, 2001. 169.
32 Pringle, 1988. 176.
33 O'Rahilly and Müller, 2001. 87.