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Research to Real World

Listening in the Womb

June 2014

A pregnant belly is hard to resist, whether it's our own or someone else's…we all want to talk to it, read to it and sing to it. It's natural and fun and just can't be helped! But what are those little bundles of joy actually listening to and how do we know? Unlike the visual system, which begins to develop at birth, hearing begins at approximately 27 weeks gestational age, or the onset of the third trimester of pregnancy.

In 1980 researchers from North Carolina published a study that used a technology called the nonnutritive sucking paradigm to determine whether newborns had learned their own mother's voice during that last trimester in the womb. They asked a group of mothers to read the same Dr. Seuss story, and then they presented these stories to their 1- to 3-day-old infants. They gave the newborns specialized pacifiers wired to computers that controlled the sounds that came out of the nearby loudspeakers. The researchers measured the newborns' baseline levels of sucking on these pacifiers and then played their own mother's voice when the newborns sucked the pacifiers at greater rates than baseline. If the newborns sucked at baseline or lower, they heard another mother's voice. Even though they were listening to the exact same story and had very little postnatal contact with their mothers, the brand new babies sucked the pacifiers faster to hear their own mother's voice rather than another mother's voice. This meant that these newborns had learned their mother's voice while in the womb. Other researchers have used this technology to determine that newborns have also already learned to distinguish the sounds of their native language, and even vowels from their language, from those of other languages.

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Tags: In This Issue, Infant & Baby, Maternity

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