Fetuses can learn nursery rhymes from mom's voice, study finds

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By Linda Carroll

Even before they are born, babies are learning from experience, especially if it’s directly related to their moms, new research is shows.

For example, while in the womb babies can learn to recognize a nursery rhyme if the mom repeats the verses between weeks 28 and 34, according a study published in Infant Behavior and Development.

To take a closer look at what age fetuses are likely to absorb and hang on to new information, researchers from the University of Florida rounded up 32 women who were in their 28th week of pregnancy. The women were asked to recite a nursery rhyme to the babies in their bellies twice a day until the 34th week of pregnancy.

Four weeks later, the moms were brought back into the lab to determine whether the rhyme had been learned.

Figuring that out is a bit of a tricky problem. While infants can be plugged into a brain monitor or EEG, there’s no way to record the brain activity of a fetus. But scientists have figured an ingenious way around that problem using a simple fetal heart monitor. As it turns out studies have shown that a late term fetus’s heart rate will slow down when something familiar is heard.

Fetuses can learn things, like nursery rhymes, while still in the womb.Today

So, while the moms wore headphones playing Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ a female stranger’s voice recited either the familiar rhyme or a completely different one. The headphones kept the moms from actually hearing when or what their fetuses were being exposed to.

The heart rates of fetuses who heard a stranger read the familiar rhyme slowed down. The heart rates of those who heard the stranger reading a different rhyme essentially stayed the same.

“We were basically asking the fetus, if your mother says this repeatedly, will you remember it?” said the study’s lead author, Charlene Krueger, an associate professor in nursing at the University of Florida. “As a take away message I would want mothers to understand is that their speech is very important to the developing fetus. When a mother speaks, not only does the fetus hear, but also the whole spine vibrates.”

When it comes to questions of when babies are really beginning to learn, Krueger’s study is “pushing the envelope earlier,” said Dr. Shafali Jeste, a pediatric neurologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It is really before they are born.”

Still, Jeste said, that doesn’t mean that moms should be putting speakers up against their bellies in an effort to make their babies smarter. “Loud sounds could cause stress to the fetus,” she explained.

Speech isn’t the only thing that babies absorb while in the womb. Studies have shown that around the 20th week of pregnancy the sensory systems for taste and smell have developed. And that allows the baby to experience some of mom’s favorite foods as nutrients pass into the womb

Krueger hopes that her new research will prompt medical personnel taking care of preterm infants to consider playing recordings of moms talking to their babies. “My goal really is to identify experimentally the benefits of providing this kind of exposure to the preterm infant who has largely lost hearing a very important voice – the mother’s.”

Research by Dr. Christine Moon suggests Krueger is on the right track. When recordings of their mother’s voice are played to healthy newborns, the hour old babies will suck faster on a pacifier than babies who hear a recording of a stranger, according to Moon, an affiliate associate professor in the department of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.

Ultimately, Krueger and others say, this research is still very much in its infancy.

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic”and the recently released “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”