Conclusive evidence!

“Even in late gestation, babies are doing what they’ll be doing throughout infancy and childhood—learning about language.”

—Dr. Christine Moon, Pacific Lutheran University

17160876_sListen up, expectant parents! You must have heard the news about the most recent research on prenatal learning—it’s been widely reported over the last couple of weeks, by The New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS, the BBC, and NPR, to name a few. And it provides the most definitive evidence yet that babies hear, remember and learn from inside the womb!

Christine Moon, the lead author of the study, is a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. She says that the study results show that babies can learn prenatally and that they are attuned to particular speech sounds of a mother’s language. It would be hard to argue with her powerful evidence.

Newborn babies can’t talk, but they can suck, and scientists used a pacifier connected to a computer to determine whether or not babies recognized sounds they had been exposed to. When a newborn hears or experiences something familiar, the sucking response slows down, and conversely, it increases for unfamiliar stimuli. Through this method, Dr. Moon discovered that brand-new babies recognized specific vowel sounds as they were spoken by their mothers.


And since it’s highly unlikely that these vowel sounds were learned in the short time after birth, the obvious conclusion was that “babies’ understanding of the difference between native and nonnative sounds could be attributed only to prenatal learning.”

Says Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study, “The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain.The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them.” So when you speak to your child in the womb, your baby is latching onto your words and your voice, and especially to those vowel sounds. The ooo’s , eee’s, and ahh’s are what your baby hears and remembers best.

If you’ve been following the Reading Womb, then you’re familiar with the incredible wealth of research showing what babies in the womb are capable of. It all started with that famous 1984 DeCasper study that demonstrated a newborn’s ability to remember a story (The Cat in the Hat) that was read prenatally. Many other studies have since shown that babies recognize music, nursery rhymes, and their native language due to hearing them from inside the womb.


Many research studies around the globe have shown that newborns are born ready to learn and begin to discriminate between language sounds within the first months of life. We at the Reading Womb have long inferred from the research that babies are learning language from inside the womb, but this most recent study gives concrete evidence that it is absolutely true.

“This is the first study that shows fetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother’s language,” said Dr. Moon. “This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth.”

Well, doesn’t the message come through loud and clear? Reading to your baby in your belly is not a crazy idea—as a matter of fact, it’s quite a brilliant idea! And may we go a step further to suggest that you choose a rhyming, rhythmic story to read to your little one? Many of the studies (see our Research links in the sidebar) strongly indicate that babies remember patterns, rhythms, and beats heard from inside the womb, and this most recent research shows that babies hear and remember specific vowel sounds. You can choose books for your baby that have both rhyming and repetitive vowel sounds.


Listen to the wonderful beat and strong repeated vowels sounds in this excerpt from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault:

A told B and B told C,

“I’ll meet you at the top of the

coconut tree.”

“Whee,” said D to E, F, G,

“I’ll beat you to the top of the coconut tree.”

Chicka chicka boom boom

Will there be enough room?


And this lovely snippet from Caldecott Medal winner Hush, by Mingfong Ho:

White duck, white duck,

don’t come beeping.

Can’t you see that Baby’s sleeping?

White duck, white duck,

don’t you cry.

My baby’s sleeping right nearby.

If you’re a new visitor to the Reading Womb, please check out our earlier posts for in-depth discussion of the research supporting prenatal reading, as well as recommendations for books and poems to read to your baby-to-be. And please leave a comment about your own experiences!

Pathways to language

Lev Vygotsky is certainly not a household name, but if you are a parent who talks and talks to your baby, you have intuitively stumbled upon the groundbreaking research territory of this brilliant cognitive theorist. Vygotsky’s study of babies and young children in the early 20th century led him to conclude that the best learning takes place when the learner is guided and supported while taking on something new by what he called “a more knowledgeable other.” Parents help their children construct their knowledge of language by introducing them to new words, and by modeling intonation and expression of voice, facial expression, and hand gestures. So, just by talking and talking, you are drawing your child along in his language learning and cognitive development, supporting his acquisition of new words, and introducing him to all the benefits of communicating with other people.

Of course, this communication can start even before your child is born. We know that babies can hear voices from inside the womb, and it is the mother’s voice that is heard most often and most clearly. During the last trimester, your baby will become familiar with the unique intonation, melody, and cadence of your voice. Research shows that the baby in the womb responds to repetition and rhythm, so by reading a poetic story you will be introducing your child to the beauty of language, and to the exciting world of human interaction. Once your baby is born, you can enrich his auditory experience by pointing out illustrations and objects that will help him to assign a visual image to the words he has become familiar with.

Reading a rhythmic story to a baby in the womb is also important to his brain development, building the foundation for future speaking, reading, and thinking. Here’s the amazing science that explains why. Months before birth, a baby is tuned in to his mother’s voice and the rhythmic sound of her heartbeat. The developing nerves in the baby’s ears are connected to his brain, and the stimulation caused by sounds creates new neural pathways as the baby grows. When sounds are repetitive, rhythmic, and familiar, the pathways are defined and strengthened. So by reading a story or poem over and over again, you are creating and reinforcing pathways in your baby’s brain, and these will lay the groundwork for continued learning and development. The research shows definitively that babies who are read a rhythmic story regularly in the last trimester, remember and are soothed by the same story after birth!

If you’ve followed our blog and podcasts, you know we’ve spoken a lot about the detriments of babies’ interacting with an artificial device such as a tablet, phone or computer monitor (see Interactive? Parts 1 and 2). And recently,  more evidence supporting the importance of human vs. electronic interaction was provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reviewed hundreds of research studies done since 1999 on the effects of TV on babies and toddlers. Consider the following statement from the AAP:

“Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (e.g., child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged.”

There is no doubt: when it comes to your child’s language learning and cognitive development, nothing comes close to the rich and loving interactions your child shares with you and the other “more knowledgeable others” in his life. So keep talking and talking to your baby, before and after birth. You’ll be glad you did . . . and your new friend Lev Vygotsky would be so proud!