What Babies Learn in the Womb

A photo of pregnant woman smiling. She is resting on chair while touching stomach. Portrait of young female is in casuals at home.

Ever wonder what babies are learning even before they arrive? I know I did.

Back when my family called downtown Toronto home, we quickly got used to the sounds of busy city life: traffic, construction and frequent sirens were all part of the background noise of our lives.

When my first child was born, I noticed right away that she too seemed accustomed to the daily din and downtown clamour. Compared to some of my suburban friends’ babies, my infant daughter could sleep right through a fire truck racing past us, sirens blaring and horns honking.

I liked to imagine she had grown used to the noise in utero. All the pregnancy books, magazines and websites I read were full of information about the sounds babies can hear in the womb and may then recognize and distinguish after their arrival, including music, voices and even specific words and sounds.

Indeed, research on pregnancy and fetal development has lots to tell us about what kinds of things babies learn in the womb that they can later apply to their early lives, from talking to eating to moving around.

Here are some of the amazing things your baby is learning well before they are born:

Language

In a well-cited study from 2013, Finnish scientists from the University of Helsinki reported that what babies can hear in the womb may have a remarkable effect on how they remember and learn language. In particular, it’s what they hear their mothers saying that counts.

In the study, some moms were asked to repeat certain sounds and made-up words out loud thousands of times over their pregnancy, while another group of moms did not. Once born, the neural response (the electric brain activity) of both groups of babies to the same sounds were measured by the researchers: babies born to the moms in the test group were able to recognize and respond to those same sounds and words as infants, while the babies in the control group that did not hear them did not respond.

Interestingly, the study’s authors also used the same methods for testing the babies’ response to music, singing and instruments played during their mother’s pregnancy, but those results were not significant. In short, your marathon phone chats with your best girlfriends might be more valuable for your baby’s growing brain during pregnancy than those pricey made-for-baby classical CDs.

Taste and smell

Likewise, the time your baby spends sharing all your meals in utero will lay the foundation for what she likes to eat later in life. As described in the encyclopedic The Mother of All Pregnancy Books, by Canadian author Ann Douglas, by the start of your third trimester, your baby can ‘detect and respond’ to both the smell and taste of what you eat. So if your morning sickness and heartburn aren’t obstacles to adventurous eating during your pregnancy, now is the time to start exposing your child’s palate to the full flavour of foods you hope they’ll enjoy later in life.

And if you are concerned about the impact of your late-night pregnancy ice cream cravings, worry not: Douglas also adds that research has shown we are literally born with a sweet tooth. She writes that babies in utero can be seen swallowing in response to sweet flavours introduced into amniotic fluid, but not to bitter flavours. Your kid is so obviously already a genius.

Movement

Douglas also has lots to say in her book about what your baby is learning while rolling and kicking around in your uterus. She notes that your baby is fully formed by week 16, and as weight and growth slow, movement begins. Over the remaining months of your pregnancy, while you and your family and friends enjoy the surprise and delight of feeling baby’s increasing movements, your baby is using all that activity to gain muscle coordination and control, learning to grasp and grab, blink and respond to light, practicing breathing, and even sucking – all for good use later on.

So what’s the take home message for expectant moms on helping their babies learn as much as possible before their arrival? Thankfully, it’s that you can sit back and relax, and let nature do this part of the parenting job for you: your baby will learn everything it needs to just by being a part of your healthy, daily routine. That ladies, is a rare gift every mom and mom-to-be can savour.

Carmen Kinniburgh

Carmen Kinniburgh is a freelance writer and editor exploring topics and ideas about parenting and families, Canadian science and research, health and medicine, as well as travel and lifestyle. Born and raised in Alberta, Carmen has also lived in Southern Ontario and Manitoba, where she worked in professional communications for a university and a national health charity. Currently living in Thunder Bay, Ontario, she gets all her best ideas and insights for Parentwise from her own three delightfully precocious children.

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