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Unborn babies aren’t just hanging around in the womb

Science

Even in the womb, babies can learn and remember according to the latest research. Two unrelated but similar studies show that unborn babies can learn and remember a nursery rhyme their mother reads to them repeatedly. They also show an ability to plan ahead by opening their mouths in anticipation of touching their faces. These studies build on previous research demonstrating babies can smell, taste, and dream by 32 weeks or earlier.

Research at the University of Florida shows that, even in the womb, babies can learn to recognize a nursery rhyme they have heard their mothers repeat. The study involved 32 moms who read one particular nursery rhyme to their unborn child twice a day from 28 to 34 weeks gestation. Next, researchers monitored the baby's heart rate while a female stranger read either the same nursery rhyme or an unfamiliar one. Previous studies showed that fetal heart rates slow down when a baby hears something familiar. The researchers found that the heart rates of the babies who heard the stranger read the familiar nursery rhyme showed recognition with a lower heart rate. There was no change in heart rate for those who heard an unfamiliar rhyme.

“We were basically asking the fetus, ‘if your mother says this repeatedly, will you remember it?’” Charlene Krueger, the study’s lead author and associate professor in nursing at the University of Florida, told the Today show.

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In an unrelated study conducted by Durham and Lancaster universities and reported by ScienceDaily, researchers proved babies can predict touch. Using 4D scanning (3D scanning in real time) researchers discovered unborn babies can predict, rather than just react to, their own hand movements.

The researchers scanned 15 healthy babies at monthly intervals between 24 and 36 weeks gestation. They found that in the earlier stages, the babies touched the upper part and sides of their heads most frequently. As they grew older, they touched the more sensitive lower parts of their faces and their mouths more often.

By 36 weeks, many of the babies opened their mouths before they touched them, suggesting they could anticipate that their hands were about to touch their mouths. They were not accidentally touching their mouths and then reacting to the touch. The researchers noted no differences between genders in displaying the behavior. Previous studies suggest that such sequential movements may form the basis for intentional behavior after birth.

The researchers hope their findings improve understanding about babies and their readiness to interact socially as well as their ability to self-sooth by sucking on their thumb or fingers.

Julie Borg
Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio.

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