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Babies Learn in the Womb Earlier than Previously Believed

Update Date: Jul 26, 2014 09:06 AM EDT

Children's brains are often described as a sponge, since they can learn and soak up information rapidly. According to new research, there is evidence that children start learning way before they are even born. The researchers reported that fetuses show signs of learning during the 34th week of pregnancy.

"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 reported by Philly. "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."

For this study, the researchers recruited 32 pregnant women who were English speakers. The women were asked to recite a 15-second rhyme threes times, twice a day from week 28 through to week 34 of pregnancy. The researchers tested for any signs of learning during weeks 28, 32, 33, and 34 by measuring the baby's heart rate while they listened to a recording of the rhyme recited by a female stranger. A slowing heart rate would indicate learning. The researchers also performed this experiment on a second group of fetuses that heard a different rhyme that was recorded using a female stranger's voice.

The researchers found that by week 34 of pregnancy, the fetuses that listened to the same rhyme that their mothers had recited had a slightly slower heart rate. The slower heart rate was noticeable from week 34 up to week 38. By week 38, the fetuses that heard the same rhyme that was recited by a female stranger had a deeper and more sustained slowing heart rate. Fetuses that listened to a different rhyme recited by a stranger' voice had quicker heart rates.

"We cautiously concluded, because it was not statistically significant, that learning emerged by 34 weeks gestational age," Krueger stated according to Reuters.

Krueger added, "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. 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 study was published in the journal, Infant Behavior and Development.

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