Womb 101

By • Published: May 31st, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

When does learning begin? New research suggests that our very first lessons about life are gleaned in our mother’s wombs.

One recent study found that babies can identify their native languages when only a few days old, indicating they learned them in the womb. Researchers played English and Swedish vowel sounds to American and Swedish newborns and counted how many times they sucked on their pacifiers. The more they sucked, the more the sounds played — thereby allowing researchers to interpret “interest” in the vowels.

The American infants sucked more when hearing Swedish vowels while the Swedish babies sucked more when hearing English vowels — suggesting that these sounds were unfamiliar, and therefore of more interest.

Research like this is part of a relatively new field called fetal origins, which examines how developing fetuses are shaped by external conditions. A similar study shows that newborns respond more to the sound of their mother’s voice than to a stranger’s. Evolutionarily, they need to recognize the person most likely to take care of them.

Fetal learning doesn’t stop with sounds. Experiments suggest that a mother’s diet also teaches her baby what’s good to eat. For example, mothers who drank carrot juice or ate the spice anise [ann-iss] throughout their pregnancies have children who are more enthusiastic about these flavors than their peers.

The messages a fetus receives about the outside world may drastically shape its development; however, these messages aren’t always positive. Emotions like stress are shared with fetuses, resulting in children who are predisposed to problems like PTSD and high blood pressure. [pause]

The more we study human development, the more it appears our prenatal experiences are also the most formative.