When learning begins

A while back we mentioned the TED Talk, “What We Learn Before We’re Born,” given by Annie Murphy Paul in July 2011 and posted on TED.com in November. Today we want to focus in on this excellent presentation and highlight the bits that really excite us as advocates of reading to babies in utero.

Annie Murphy Paul and Son Gus

Ms. Paul is a science writer for The New York Times and TIME Magazine, and she’s written a book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. In her talk she explains the emerging scientific field called fetal origins, which studies the ways that health and well-being are affected by one’s experience in the womb.

Many elements of a pregnant mother’s environment, from the foods she eats to the stressful situations she encounters, can have lasting effects on her growing baby’s future adaptation to its world. But, says Ms. Paul, “one of the most fascinating insights I took from this work is that we’re all learning about the world even before we enter it.”

And that includes, of course, learning language! She discusses some of the research findings that we’ve talked about here, such as this one from way back in 1985, in which researchers had 16 pregnant mothers read Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat to their bellies twice a day for the last 6 weeks of pregnancy. When the babies were born, they showed by sucking response that they much preferred to hear their mothers read the familiar Dr. Seuss story than one they hadn’t heard from the womb.

Ms. Paul also mentioned this favorite study of ours that found that newborns cry in the accent of their mother’s language. Her comment on the implications of this is fascinating:

Now, why would this kind of fetal learning be useful? It may have evolved to aid the baby’s survival. From the moment of birth, the baby responds most to the voice of the person who is most likely to care for it—its mother. It even makes its cries sound like the mother’s language, which may further endear the baby to the mother, and which may give the baby a head start in the critical task of learning how to understand and speak its native language.

We love the attention that Annie Murphy Paul is bringing to the subject of fetal origins and learning. Even though there’s a wealth of scientific evidence (just check out our Research links to the right!) to show that babies begin absorbing elements of language in utero, there’s nothing like a lively, engaging speaker—who’s a mother herself—bringing science home to our everyday lives. Ms. Paul explains all the research in a cozy, comfortable manner that is easily accessible to us nonscientific types, and her message couldn’t be any clearer: Babies in the womb are paying attention! Your expected child is a captive audience who is poised, listening and ready to learn, and it is you, the expectant parent, who is your child’s very first teacher. Any teacher worth her salt knows the importance of reading aloud to children and its powerful impact on language and literacy development.

Annie Murphy Paul concludes her talk, “Learning is one of life’s most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined.” So very true, Annie, and we’re sure you’ll agree . . . it’s never too early to read to your baby!

1 thought on “When learning begins”

  1. Every expectant parent should watch Annie Murphy Paul’s TED talk. It’s so interesting and will change your ideas about what babies in the womb are capable of.


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