Study Finds that Babies Are Listening—and Learning—In Utero

A fascinating new study suggests an infant has the ability to remember words and sounds they heard while still in the womb.A fascinating new study suggests an infant has the ability to remember words and sounds they heard while still …Pregnant ladies out there: Have you played classical music or read children's books to your belly yet? If so, you may find a recent study about what babies can actually hear while in the womb quite interesting.

More...According to new research, as a fetus grows inside a mother's belly, it can hear sounds from the outside world. And it doesn't stop there--the fetus can understand those words well enough to retain memories of them after birth. Incredible!

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Here's how it works: the sound-processing part of the brain begins functioning in the last trimester of pregnancy, and sound carries fairly well by way of the mother's abdomen. "If you put your hand over your mouth and speak, that's very similar to the situation the fetus is in," says cognitive neuroscientist Eino Partanen of the University of Helsinki. "You can hear the rhythm of speech, rhythm of music, and so on." Partanen and his team used EEG sensors to search for neural traces of memories from the womb. "Once we learn a sound, if it's repeated to us often enough, we form a memory of it, which is activated when we hear the sound again," he explains. This memory speeds up recognition of sounds and can be detected as a pattern of brain waves, even in a sleeping baby.

Study details: Partanen's team gave pregnant women a recording to play a few times a week during their last few months of pregnancy, which included a made-up word, "tatata," repeated many times and interspersed with music. When the babies were born, they had heard the made-up word, on average, more than 25,000 times. And when they were tested after birth, these infants' brains recognized the word and its variations, while infants in a control group did not.

Babies who heard the recordings showed the neural signal for recognizing vowel and pitch changes in the nonsensical word and the signal was strongest for the infants whose mothers played it the most often.

"This leads us to believe that the fetus can learn much more detailed information than we previously thought," Partanen says, "And that memory traces are detectable after birth."

Note to pregnant moms: Just because babies have the ability to learn while in utero doesn't mean that playing music or language recordings will really benefit the child down the line. Partanen states there is no solid evidence that stimulation beyond normal sounds of everyday life offers any long-term benefits. Playing sounds to a fetus with speakers close to the belly could even be problematic because it can overstimulate the fetal ear and rapidly developing brain. Too much noise can actually interfere with the auditory system and may disrupt the baby's sleep cycles.


- By Ellen Schmidt

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