Baby's Alertness in the Womb

Learning and Memory

Along with the ability to feel, see, and hear comes the capacity to learn and remember. For example, a fetus may be startled by a loud noise, but stops responding once the noise has been repeated several times.

Twins at 20 weeks' gestation can be seen developing certain gestures and habits that persist into their postnatal years. In one case, a brother and sister were seen playing cheek-to-cheek on either side of the dividing membrane. At one year of age, their favorite game was to take positions on opposite sides of a curtain, and begin to laugh and giggle as they touched each other and played through the curtain.

Studies have also shown a baby can feel and remember its mother's emotional state. An experiment in Australia revealed that unborn babies were participating in the emotional upset of their mothers who were watching a disturbing 20-minute segment of a movie. When the babies were reexposed to this film up to three months after birth, they still showed recognition of the earlier experience.

In the 1980s, psychology professor Anthony James DeCasper, PhD, and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro performed a study with a feeding contraption that allows a baby to hear one set of sounds through headphones when it sucks faster, and to hear a different set of sounds when it sucks slower. This experiment revealed that within hours of birth, a baby already prefers its mother's voice to a stranger's, suggesting that it must have learned and remembered the voice from the womb. Newborns also preferred a story read to it repeatedly in the womb over a new one. And the same soft music that soothes them in utero soothes them again after birth.

Newborns can not only distinguish their mother's voice from a stranger's, but would rather hear Mom's voice, especially the way it sounds filtered through amniotic fluid rather than through air. They also prefer to hear Mom speaking in her native language than to hear her or someone else speaking in a foreign tongue.

Babies in the womb are probably reacting to the overall sound of voices and stories, not their actual words. But the conclusion is the same: the fetus can listen, learn, and remember at some level, and, as with most babies and children, he likes the comfort and reassurance of the familiar.

Sources: The Nemours Foundation; Association for Pre- & Perinatal Psychology and Health; Janet L. Hopson, "Fetal Psychology," Psychology Today, September-October 1998

Reviewed 11/02 by Elizabeth Stein, CNM

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