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Premature Babies Can Decipher Sounds and Syllables

Update Date: Feb 26, 2013 03:45 PM EST

Reading to unborn babies during the last trimester might help with the baby's development of language and sound. According to a study done by Professor Fabrice Wallois of Picardie Univeristy in Amiens, France, a baby's brain development for recognizing sounds and speech occurs very early on. Professor Wallois found that babies who were at most three months premature could already distinguish between different parts of speech, reacting to distinct sounds known as phonemes. However, distinguishing between speech parts is not equivalent to understanding what is actually being said. 

The experiment recruited 12 premature babies that were born from 28 to 32 weeks. The researchers used non-invasive scanners to measure the brain activity of the infants while they played different voice recordings. The researchers wanted to know if premature babies could decipher speech in the same way that healthy new-borns could. Based off of the data collected from this small sample group, Professor Wallois concluded that premature infants have the neurological ability to decipher syllables and sound. Professor Wallois also stated that this might be the earliest age in which infants could hear distinct external noises. 

The study specifically noted that there were similar brain processes in both infants and adults when differentiating between male and female voices. Thus, not only can premature infants understand different parts of the speech, they can also associate the speech to a particular gender. The study also found that the responses the infants produced during the experiment were not concentrated only in the right frontal region of the brain, but also in certain areas of the left hemisphere. Based on this particular finding, Professor Wallois theorized that the brain develops organizational capabilities of language as early as 28 weeks. Whether or not reading to babies a few months before birth can be beneficial, this study does reveal that premature infants can process speech and sound. 

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