Babies are learning before they're even born!

Indian mother and baby.jpg

Babies are learning about the world they’re going to be born into, even before they’re born.

In utero research is still ongoing so that we can know more about how babies develop and learn so that we can best ensure the health of the babies/the children/the adults they grow into.

Pregnant women are exposing their developing babies to everything that they are exposed to - the air they breathe, the food and drink they consume, the emotions they feel - these are shared with the foetus, which treats this information about the world outside as learning for its survival. They use the information to organise its body - are they going to be born into a world of abundance or scarcity?

The mother’s diet provides important clues - if nutrition is scarce, the foetus will divert all the nutrients to the developing brain where it is needed most, thus depriving other organs like the heart and liver. Later on in life, those organs that didn’t receive all the nutrients that they should have whilst developing become more susceptible to disease.

A foetus can also learn about the particular culture they will be entering into from the food entering the womb. The flavours of food that a woman eats finds its way into the amniotic fluid, which is constantly swallowed by the foetus. Babies seem to remember and prefer these tastes once they’re out in the world. They are effectively being taught by the mother what is safe and good to eat!

A foetus will also learn the sound of its mother’s voice. Sounds from the outside world have to travel through the mother’s abdomen tissue and through the amniotic fluid that surrounds the foetus so voices are muted and muffled. However, the pregnant woman’s own voice reverberates around her body reaching the foetus much more easily. The foetus hears her voice a lot so, by the time it is born, it can recognise its mother’s voice and much prefers her voice to anyone else’s.

A 2014 study of pre-term infants showed that playing a recording of the mother’s voice when babies sucked on a pacifier was enough to improve development of oral feeding skills and shorten their hospital stay.  If a baby is feeling stressed, hearing their mother’s voice can soothe them, reducing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increasing levels of oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone). Scientists have even traced the power of a mother’s voice to infants’ brains: her voice activates the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left posterior temporal region more strongly than an unfamiliar voice, priming the infant for the specialised task of processing speech.

Babies can also remember language and songs. Reseachers asked pregnant women to read aloud a certain passage of a book over and over again whilst they were pregnant. When the babies were born, they instantly recognised those passages when read to. It’s the same with music and song. If you regularly play a particular piece of music or sing a song while you are relaxing whilst you are pregnant, your baby will recognise that music or song once it is born and will associate it as something to relax to, something that is soothing.

The foetus will also share emotions with the mother. A foetus will experience a mother’s high level of stress and anxiety. Researchers have discovered that babies born to mothers with PTSD have biological markers that makes them susceptible to PTSD in later life.

Being able to be as relaxed as possible during her pregnancy will not only be good for the pregnant woman but it will also be beneficial to the foetus. There are a lot of things that cannot be controlled in the world and a pregnant woman cannot completely control how her baby will develop - she can do her very best to ensure that she provides the best conditions for the foetus to develop. That includes the foods she eats, how she react to her experiences and the way that she feels during her pregnancy. Everything should be kept in perspective, though.

A pregnant woman shouldn’t spend time wondering and worrying - all she has to do is use her common sense. If she eats right, gets lots of rest, steers clear of alcohol, drugs and smoking then she’ll be doing as much as she can to keep both herself and her baby healthy.

To find out more about this, have a listen to Annie Murphy Paul’s TED talk - it’s fascinating. You can read more about how a mother’s voice shapes her baby’s developing brain here.