Probing Question: Can babies learn in utero?

pregnant woman listening to baby's heartbeat
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From the moment of birth, an infant begins rapidly absorbing information, piecing together the framework of his or her future self. But what happens during all that time the bun's still in the oven? Does learning begin in utero?

Absolutely, says Rick Gilmore. "There's ample evidence that fetuses are picking up information from the outside world. They're especially receptive to sounds from the mother's body and the external environment."

Gilmore, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State, points to a well-known study conducted by Anthony DeCasper at the University of South Carolina that seems to prove the existence of prenatal learning. "Mothers were instructed to read Dr. Seuss out loud while they were pregnant," Gilmore explains. "When the babies were born, researchers tested to see if they recognized Dr. Seuss against other stories, and their mother's voice against other readers. In both cases, the infants were able to pick up on the vocal patterns they'd become familiar with in utero."

Notes Gilmore, hearing is one of the first senses to develop. As early as 16 weeks gestation, a developing fetus begins to perceive the world outside the womb through his or her fluid-filled ears. However, a sound-dampening barrier of embryonic fluid and abdominal tissue restricts audible input. "The sound a fetus hears in the womb is highly muffled, consisting mostly of low frequencies," says Gilmore. "Inside the womb, people's voices sound like Charlie Brown's teacher, sort of like a muted trumpet. However, there is a lot of information in that filtered and muted sound stream."

While infants can't understand words, they are adept learners of vocal rhythms and patterns. Remarkably, this information allows them to differentiate between languages from birth. Observes Gilmore,"There are studies that show a two-day-old infant's preference to the mother's native language, even when spoken by unfamiliar voices."

Because her vocal chords resonate easily through body tissue and fluid, a mother's voice is the lead lecturer in prenatal lessons. "In fact," elaborates Gilmore, "if the mother is bilingual, the information contained in those languages might shape the development of the brain and predispose children to learning those languages after birth."

Some parents read to their prenatal pupils in an effort to stimulate brain function. But before you strain your voice reading War and Peace aloud, be aware that there's very little scientific basis for this practice."As far as I'm aware," says Gilmore, "nothing suggests that reading or the kind of material you read matters."

Parents who believe the womb is a child's first classroom are the targets of prenatal learning products that play music and sound patterns to the fetus, promising to kindle cognitive development. Other parents expose their unborn children to classical music. Is there a scientific basis for this practice?

"Music is a generally stimulating pattern of sound for the brain," Gilmore acknowledges. "And fetuses do respond to music in the environment. But again, because of the way sound is filtered by the embryonic fluid, it's going to be attenuated; rhythm would be emphasized more than melody." What about the studies suggesting that infants exposed to Mozart's music developed increased learning capabilities? "Subsequent studies found that this effect wasn't specific to Mozart," reveals Gilmore. "It turns out all types of music seem to have a beneficial effect."

"It's important to understand that, while in utero learning does indeed exist, the type of learning is quite simple," he concludes. "There's very little evidence of any specific thing a parent can do to affect a child's intelligence or temperament before birth."

Rick O. Gilmore, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, directs the Brain Development and Cognition Laboratory and is acting director of the Social & Life Sciences Imaging Center at Penn State. He can be reached at rogilmore@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 23, 2009