Wombs with a view on baby talk

The Australian 27 August 2013
Unborn babies recognise their parents’ voices from inside the womb. New research suggests they are attuned not only to voices, but also to speech patterns.

In a Finnish study, women in the late stages of pregnancy listened to CDs containing hundreds of repetitions of the nonsense word “tatata”. The recordings were interspersed with occasional variations in which the sound of the middle syllable was changed. 

After birth, the researchers measured the electrical activity in the babies’ brains while CDs of the same nonsense word were played. Compared to other newborns, they reacted up to three times as strongly when the word changed.

The results suggest that foetal brains have “similar learning and memory capacities” to those of infants, the researchers report today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our findings indicate that prenatal experiences have a remarkable influence on the brain’s auditory discrimination accuracy, which may support language acquisition during infancy.”

This suggests that exposing unborn babies to language could help offset “language impairment” later in life, the paper says. “It might be possible to support early auditory development and potentially compensate for difficulties of genetic nature, such as dyslexia.” 

But the researchers also warn expectant mothers that noisy workplaces could disrupt their babies’ speech development.


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