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New clues reveal the secret life of the baby in your belly

July 31, 2014 at 8:30 AM ET

Little ones spend nine months growing in the womb and what they experience in there is still a bit of a mystery. It’s hard for doctors to test what babies are doing and learning as they hang out inside mom.

But new studies are offering intriguing clues.

Life in the womb is much busier than you might expect, said Dr. Bill Fifer, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a leading expert on fetal and newborn learning.

"Everything that a newborn baby does, a fetus has pretty much done already," Fifer said.

“They're exquisitely able to sense information over all parts of their body, although some are more sensitive than others, like around the mouth, around the feet, around the hands."

Read: Savannah Guthrie on pregnancy oversharing

Here's a sneak peek at what's happening:

Moving around: Experts say kicking and other activity can be a reaction to mom eating or changing positions; or it might happen just because the baby feels like moving around.

Mom's emotions can also cause certain movements. The more stress pregnant women reported, the more frequently their fetuses touched their faces with their left hands, researchers at Durham and Lancaster universities in the UK announced last month. Their study was published in the journal "Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition."

“This suggests maternal stress could be having on effect on the child’s behavior in the womb and highlights the importance of reducing maternal stress in pregnancy,” Dr. Nadja Reissland, the lead author, said.

Read: Savannah Guthrie on breaking the weight gain rules of pregnancy

Learning: The outside world affects little ones in other ways.

Babies appear to recognize nursery rhymes even before they are born, according to a recent study published in the journal "Infant Behavior and Development." University of Florida researchers asked pregnant women in their third trimester to read classic verses to their bellies twice a day for several weeks.  

In utero, the baby's heart rate slowed when the rhyme was read by mom and continued to lower even when a stranger’s voice took over story time a few weeks later.

Video: Researchers found that babies in utero start responding to the rhythm of nursery rhymes and show evidence of learning by 34 weeks into pregnancy.

Listening: Hearing is a sense that develops early in the process.

A baby’s ears are fully formed about halfway through pregnancy, which means children may know their mom’s voice by the time they're born.

“Prenatally, it’s got this extra boost by the fact that it’s coming in through the whole body,” said Dr. Christine Moon, an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington who studies babies’ voice recognition. She found that when hours-old newborns are given a pacifier to suck on while hearing a recording of their mother's voice, they will suck faster, suggesting familiarity.

Related: Read Savannah Guthrie's full pregnancy blog

Taste and smell: These sensory systems develop around the 20th week of pregnancy, allowing the baby to enjoy some of mom's cravings through nutrients in the womb and maybe even leading to some future favorite foods.

Researchers have found that mothers who consistently ate carrots during the end of their pregnancy had babies who enjoyed that taste more than babies whose mothers hadn’t shared the same diet.

Based on those results, Savannah Guthrie's baby probably has a "real hankering for junk food and sweets," TODAY's Matt Lauer joked. But she was more specific.

"Mine would be like, at 20 weeks, your baby likes Indian food with beef jerky," she said, to laughter.

"It's going to be a great baby, it knows how to read a prompter," Al Roker added.

Sight: This is the last sense to mature, though some new evidence suggests babies are able to differentiate between light and dark in the womb. 

But if you're an expectant parent, that doesn't mean you need to provide extra stimulation in order for your little one to thrive in mom's belly.

“Nature provides pretty much all the sources of stimulation that a baby is going to need,” Fifer said.

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