Babies learn lullabies in mother’s womb

November 3, 2013 - 06:29

Babies can recognise lullabies they have heard inside their mother’s womb up to four months after birth. This mechanism may support later speech development, argue Finnish researchers.

If you want to boost your baby’s ability to learn to speak, it may be a good idea to play music while the baby is still in your womb. But keep headphones and speakers away from your belly and use your voice instead, recommend the researchers behind the new study. (Photo Veikko Somerpuro)

Extensive prenatal exposure to a melody induces neural representations that last for several months, concludes a new study from the University of Helsinki, Finland.

“This is the first study to track how long foetal memories remain in the brain. The results are significant, as studying the responses in the brain lets us focus on the foundations of foetal memory. The early mechanisms of memory are currently unknown,” the lead author of the study, Dr Minna Huotilainen, says in a press release.

Lullaby stuck in the brain for months

The new study, published in the journal Plos One, examined 24 Finnish women during the final trimester of their pregnancies. Half of the women played the melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to their foetuses five days a week for the final stages of their pregnancies.

The brains of the babies who heard the melody in utero reacted more strongly to the familiar melody both immediately and four months after birth when compared with the control group. The results show that foetuses can recognise and remember sounds from the outside world.

“Even though our previous research indicated that foetuses could learn minor details of speech, we did not know how long they could retain the information. These results show that babies are capable of learning at a very young age, and that the effects of the learning remain apparent in the brain for a long time," says Eino Partanen, who is currently finishing his PhD thesis at the Cognitive Brain Research Unit at the University of Helsinki.

Don't go bombarding your foetus with sounds

The researchers believe that song and speech are the most beneficial factors for the foetus in terms of speech development. According to the current understanding, the processing of singing and speech in the babies’ brains is partly based on shared mechanisms, and so hearing a song can support a baby’s speech development, they argue.

In another article, also published in the journal Plos One, the Helsinki researchers have shown that speaking to the foetus also leaves a mark on the newborn’s brain.

If a mother-to-be wants to give her foetus something to listen to, why not just sing or hum some pleasant melodies? The mother’s voice has more resonance than any other voice in the womb, and this may make it more likely that the baby will remember the melody after birth.
Eino Partanen

Partanen is, however, keen to point out that prospective parents should not go crazy throwing sounds at the little foetus in the mother’s womb:

“Do not place speakers on the pregnant woman’s belly. We know from rat studies that noise can harm neural development and that noise can disturb people’s sleeping patterns and cause stress.”

Mother’s voice is the sweetest music

”If a mother-to-be wants to give her foetus something to listen to, why not just sing or hum some pleasant melodies? The mother’s voice has more resonance than any other voice in the womb, and this may make it more likely that the baby will remember the melody after birth,” Partanen writes in an email to ScienceNordic.

”This can be quite useful when the baby needs to be comforted after it is born.”

The researchers are currently taking a closer look at how noise, e.g. at the mother’s workplace, affects the foetus during the final trimester of their pregnancy.

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

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