School In The Womb?

(BeWellBuzz) Attention soon-to-be Mama’s and Papa’s: mind your speech because someone is listening!

A new study went beyond behavioral observations and examined the brains of infants to find that fetuses may begin learning your language long before leaving the womb.

At the earliest stages of life we are consummate auditory learners. Among the most important differentiations the baby is learning to make are those among sounds. Infants are discovering variance between tones as in happy or sad, gentle or aggressive, yes or no. They also begin to discriminate the sounds of letters, syllables and rhythm.

Previous studies have indicated that babies in the womb hear, remember and respond to verbal cues. Researchers would expose mother and baby to certain words and sounds repetitively. After birth they’d be exposed again and observed for any behavioral response, such as turning their head or sucking on a pacifier. These former studies suggested the infants had learned and remembered the sounds, but were not able to identify specific brain activity.

In the present study 17 Finnish women in their third trimester agreed to play a recording that repeated a make-believe word, tatata, twice for four minutes straight, 5-7 times per week. There was only one variant. Every so often the voice would change the middle syllable of the word.

Yet unlike in earlier attempts, this study the team was able to physically see the babies’ brain activity after birth and observe electric neural responses.

By attaching electrodes to the infants’ heads scientists could watch for “mismatch negativity,” or a mismatch field. A mismatch field is a “jolt” alerting the brain that something has changed.

5 days after birth the 17 babies who’d heard the recording in utero joined with a control group of 16 others who had never heard it. As they listened, the 16 showed no brain response to the word or its variant. However, the 17 did. As soon as they heard the “mismatch” sound their brains came to attention, indicating recognition and differentiation.

The trained fetuses also showed “enhanced brain activity (mismatch responses) in response to pitch changes,” as compared to the control group.

Authors of the published study wrote, these results “show direct neural evidence that neural memory traces are formed by auditory learning prior to birth. Our findings indicate that prenatal experiences have a remarkable influence on the brain’s auditory discrimination accuracy, which may support, for example, language acquisition during infancy.”

Language acquisition during infancy? Very cool.

These findings might give expectant mothers and fathers incentive for extra-early learning, not to mention caution concerning what their unborn baby is exposed to. If the child can pick up on sounds and words, she/he can probably also pick up on more.

Eino Partanen and colleagues at the University of Helsinki especially hope the study will lead to more strategy in preventing or compensating for challenges such as language impairment or dyslexia.



E. Partanen et al. Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online August 26, 2013. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302159110. Available online:

ScienceNews: Babies learn words before birth

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