Can a fetus learn from experience before he or she is even born? Absolutely, says an interesting new study.
Researchers from the University of Florida say that they began their study with 32 women who were in the 28th week of pregnancy. They had them repeat the verse of a nursery rhyme, twice daily to their babies, between weeks 29 and 34 of their pregnancy.
Four weeks later, the moms were brought back into the lab to determine whether the rhyme had been learned.
The problem was how to test the fetuses to see if they actually were learning the verse. While tricky to figure out, the scientists came up with a simple solution. As it turns out studies have shown that a late term fetus's heart rate will slow down when something familiar is heard.
During the testing, the moms listened to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" with headphones so they couldn't hear what was being said. During that time, a stranger recited the same nursery rhyme that the mothers had repeatedly spoken to their babies.
The researchers found that when the babies heard the stranger's voice recite the nursery rhyme their moms had recited, their heart rate slowed down. But, when they heard the stranger's voice recite a different rhyme, their heart rate remained the same.
"We were basically asking the fetus, if your mother says this repeatedly, will you remember it?" said the study's lead author, Charlene Krueger, an associate professor in nursing at the University of Florida. "As a take away message I would want mothers to understand is that their speech is very important to the developing fetus. When a mother speaks, not only does the fetus hear, but also the whole spine vibrates."
Speech isn't the only thing that babies absorb while in the womb. Studies have shown that around the 20th week of pregnancy the sensory systems for taste and smell have developed. That allows the baby to experience some of mom's favorite foods as nutrients pass into the womb.
An earlier study by Dr. Christine Moon, an affiliate associate professor in the department of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, may show that Kruger's pre-term research is on the right path.
Moon's study showed that when healthy one- hour- old infants heard recordings of their mother's voice, they began to suck faster on a pacifier than babies who heard a recording of a stranger.
Krueger's study is pushing the envelope as far as when babies actually begin to learn, but the results may suggest that they are capable of acquiring recognition much earlier than originally thought.
While interesting, this type of research is still very much in its infancy.
The study was published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development.