NRL News

Moms can teach their unborn babies nursery rhymes, study shows

by | Jul 15, 2015

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. We posted elsewhere today about a remarkable study in which researchers concluded babies who were placed for adoption with parents from another country nonetheless retained an “unconscious knowledge of their mother tongue.” That reminded me of this delightful story that we ran last year.

What an incredible coincidence. Just this morning (as is my habit) I scanned both today’s Washington Post and a couple of stories from a few days ago. I came across this fascinating article, dated July 19, written by Meeri Kim headlined “Babies grasp speech before they utter their first word, a study finds.”

In one paragraph, here’s the gist:

 “A new study has found that a key part of the brain involved in forming speech is firing away in babies as they listen to voices around them. This may represent a sort of mental rehearsal leading up to the true milestone that occurs after only a year of life: baby’s first words.”

   Honestly, I thought to myself, this is great but wouldn’t it also be helpful if a story ran about some of the latest research documenting what unborn babies can learn. Lo and behold…

From a section on the TODAY Show blog, here’s a story by Linda Carroll: “Fetuses can learn nursery rhymes from mom’s voice, study finds.” Here’s Carroll’s lead sentences:

Even before they are born, babies [note, babies, not “fetuses”] are learning from experience, especially if it’s directly related to their moms, new research shows. For example, while in the womb babies can learn to recognize a nursery rhyme if the mom repeats the verses between weeks 28 and 34, according a study published in Infant Behavior and Development.”

    Thirty-two moms of babies who were in their 28th week were recruited. They recited a nursery rhyme twice a day until the 34th week. Four weeks later the mothers returned to the University of Florida.

Carroll answers an obvious but intriguing question: how do you record an unborn baby’s brain activity? It’s not as difficult as you might think. []

Researchers already knew that the heartbeat of a baby later in pregnancy will slow down when she hears something familiar.  Carroll wrote

“So, while the moms wore headphones playing Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ a female stranger’s voice recited either the familiar rhyme or a completely different one. The headphones kept the moms from actually hearing when or what their fetuses were being exposed to.

“The heart rates of fetuses who heard a stranger read the familiar rhyme slowed down. The heart rates of those who heard the stranger reading a different rhyme essentially stayed the same.”

 The study’s lead author, Charlene Krueger, an associate professor in nursing, told Carroll, “We were basically asking the fetus, if your mother says this repeatedly, will you remember it?” Krueger’s “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.”

   Not until late in the story is the reader reminded that speech is not the only thing unborn babies “absorb” in the womb. “Studies have shown that around the 20th week of pregnancy the sensory systems for taste and smell have developed,” Carroll writes. “And that allows the baby to experience some of mom’s favorite foods as nutrients pass into the womb.”

Krueger actually had another takeaway, only this time it was for medical personnel taking care of preterm infants. They should consider playing recordings of moms talking to their babies.

My goal really is to identify experimentally the benefits of providing this kind of exposure to the preterm infant who has largely lost hearing a very important voice – the mother’s.”

Tip of the hat to

Categories: Uncategorized