What do babies learn before they are born?

For decades people have said that learning begins in the womb, and now new research by science writer and mother Annie Murphy Paul has further proven this to be true.

Murphy Paul has spent time on fetal origin research, which explains how babies learn while in the womb, and she shared her insight in this TED talk.

According to Murphy Paul’s research, here are some of the things that children learn before they are born:

  • The mother’s voice. While a baby is in the womb she can hear all voices, but her mother’s voice is special and the most clear. Voices coming from outside the womb are inaudible and may sound like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons. However, the baby can hear a mother’s voice clearly because the baby is directly connected to the mother. Sound travels differently in a mother’s body versus the sound waves coming in through the stomach.
  • Language. A baby can learn the mother’s native language while in the womb. This is shown when the baby cries because the cry will have a similar sound to the mother’s dialect. For example, French babies have a cry ending with a high pitch whereas German babies have a cry ending on a lower note. This is parallel to the languages spoken in these countries.
  • Taste and smell. At seven months old, a baby can recognize tastes and smells of their mother. As a fetus, a baby absorbs what the mother eats. To emphasis this theory, a test group of pregnant women was asked to drink a lot of carrot juice in their third trimester; a control group drank more water. At six months of age, the children of these women were asked to have cereal with carrot juice or milk. Those whose mothers drank a lot of carrot juice preferred the carrot juice cereal and enjoyed it more. The children whose mothers drank more water were less likely to enjoy the carrot juice cereal.
  • Adaptability. When children are in the womb, they are learning about the world around them. If the mother has an abundance of food, the child learns there will be opportunities in life. When there is less food or more stress, a child learns about survival.

To further make the point about adaptability and survival skills, Murphy Paul shared a specific example about women who were pregnant during World War II. In Holland, food was rationed and in short supply during the war. Some people were forced to eat tulip bulbs for survival; 10,000 people died in this “Hunger Winter.”

Living with less access to food increased the number of birth defects, infant deaths and low birth weights.

Decades later, these babies now adults were more likely to have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Researchers found that this was mostly due to the fact that there was a mismatch between the low food supply while the child was in the uterus and the abundance of food afterward. Children had access to food after the Hunger Winter ended, but when they were in the womb their bodies had adapted to be able to store calories and divert resources to their brains.

What this means for families is that it is important to have a healthy pregnancy and be aware of the interaction you are having with your little ones even while in the womb. Eat healthy, spend time talking with him or her and enjoy your time together. Prenatal nutrition and education does make a difference!

© Let’s Talk Kids, 2013

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