-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
FRIDAY, July 25, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Babies seem to learn
even before they're born, a new study suggests.
By the time women are 34 weeks pregnant, their unborn babies can
respond to the sound of their mother's voice reciting a familiar
nursery rhyme, the researchers report.
"The mother's voice is the predominant source of sensory stimulation in the developing fetus," Charlene Krueger, nursing researcher and associate professor in the University of Florida's College of Nursing, said in a university news release. "This research highlights just how sophisticated the third trimester fetus really is and suggests that a mother's voice is involved in the development of early learning and memory capabilities. This could potentially affect how we approach the care and stimulation of the preterm infant."
In conducting the study, published recently in the journal
Infant Behavior and Development, the researchers asked 32
pregnant women who spoke English as their first language to recite
a rhyme to their babies out loud a few times a day for six
The women recited a nursery rhyme or passage as directed from 28
to 34 weeks of pregnancy. At 34 weeks, the women were asked to stop
reciting their rhyme. During weeks 28, 32, 33 and 34 of the
pregnancy, researchers tested the babies for evidence of
Using a fetal heart monitor, the researchers analyzed the
babies' heart rate. A slowing of the heart rate, they explained,
would be a sign of learning.
During the test, some unborn babies were played a recording of
the same rhyme that had been recited by their mother. This time
however, the rhyme was spoken by an unfamiliar female voice.
To determine if the babies were responding to their mother's
voice or a familiar pattern of speech, a second group of unborn
babies heard a different rhyme recorded by a female stranger.
The study revealed the babies' heart rate began to respond to
the familiar rhyme by 34 weeks of pregnancy. By this time, they had
heard their mother recite the rhyme regularly for six weeks. The
researchers identified a slight slowing of the babies' heart rate
for up to four weeks after their mothers stopping reciting their
By 38 weeks, the group of babies that heard a stranger recite
the rhyme spoken by their mother at home had a more significant
response to the familiar words. The researchers found there was a
deeper and more sustained slowing of their heart rate. Meanwhile,
the babies that heard a new rhyme experienced a quickening of their
"This study helped us understand more about how early a fetus could learn a passage of speech and whether the passage could be remembered weeks later even without daily exposure to it," Krueger said. "This could have implications to those preterm infants who are born before 37 weeks of age and the impact an intervention such as their mother's voice may have on influencing better outcomes in this high-risk population."
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
provides more information on the
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