Near infrared (NIR) measurements were made from the maternal abdomen (clinical studies) and laboratory tissue phantoms (experimental studies) to gain insight into photon migration through the fetal head in utero. Specifically, a continuous wave spectrometer was modified and employed to make NIR measurements at 760 and 850 nm, at a large (10 cm) and small (2.5/4 cm) source-detector separation, simultaneously, on the maternal abdomen, directly above the fetal head. A total of 19 patients were evaluated, whose average gestational age and fetal head depth, were 37 weeks ±3 and 2.25 cm ±0.7, respectively. At the large source-detector separation, the photons are expected to migrate through both the underlying maternal and fetal tissues before being detected at the surface, while at the short source-detector separation, the photons are expected to migrate primarily through the superficial maternal tissues before being detected. Second, similar NIR measurements were made on laboratory tissue phantoms, with variable optical properties and physical geometries. The variable optical properties were obtained using different concentrations of India ink and Intralipid in water, while the variable physical geometries were realized by employing glass containers of different shapes and sizes. Third, the NIR measurements, which were made on the laboratory tissue phantoms, were compared to the NIR measurements made on the maternal abdomen to determine which tissue phantom best simulates the photon migration path through the fetal head in utero. The results of the comparison were used to provide insight into the optical properties and physical geometry of the maternal and fetal tissues in the photon migration path. © 2000 Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.