Babies can recognise words they heard in the womb

If you’re wondering whether to talk to your foetus, new research says you should

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Babies are able to remember some words they hear when they are in their mother’s womb, according to research.

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Researchers from the University of Helsinki looked at 33 pregnant women and studied their babies after birth.

From week 29 of pregnancy until birth, they gave 17 of these mums-to-be a recording to play to their growing babies. The recording contained a voice saying the made-up word “tatata” over and over again in different pitches, with the middle syllable changed to “tatota” in some places. The pregnant women played the recording five to seven times a week in two bursts of four minutes with the volume up loud.

Five days after birth, all 33 babies were tested to make sure their hearing was normal. Then electrodes were placed on their heads and they were played the “tatata” recording. The 17 who had heard it in the womb recognised the made-up words and recognised the pitch and syllable changes, as their brain activity picked up when they heard them. The babies who were not played the recordings in-utero did not react.

“There is already some evidence that foetuses can learn, and that babies can remember songs or passages of speech from the foetal period,” study co-author Minna Huotilainen, a docent at the University of Helsinki’s Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research said.  But this research shows that babies can do more than just hear and recognise words from when they were foetuses, they can also detect subtle changes and process complex information about words.

“We believe this shows how well the brain at this age adapts to sounds. It is a sign of very early language learning, or adaptation to the sounds they heard,” said Huotilainen. “A newborn baby is not an empty canvas, but has already learned how his or her mother and other family members speak.”

“We have known that foetuses can learn certain sounds from their environment during pregnancy,” said Eino Partanen a doctoral student and lead author on the paper.

“We can now very easily assess the effects of foetal learning on a very detailed level – like in our study, [we] look at the learning effects to very small changes in the middle of a word.

“Interestingly, this prenatal exposure also helped the newborns to detect changes which they were not exposed to: the infants who have received additional prenatal stimulation could also detect loudness changes in pseudo words but the unexposed infants could not,” Partanen said.

The sound-processing parts of a foetus’s brain become active in the last trimester and sound can travel well through the mother’s abdomen. If you want to know what words sound like to a foetus, put your hand over your mouth and speak.

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