Learning vs Reflexes In The Womb
Typically, people believe that babies begin to learn after they are born during the first few months they are alive. Another theory has popped up called the fetal origins hypothesis stating that babies actually begin learning when they are in their mom’s womb. In this case there is a fine line betweening “learning” and the fetus developing reflexes.
In my hypothesis I had stated, “Babies pick up on things such as recognizing the sound of their mother’s voice, her food preference while pregnant, and all the traumatic stress she has while they are in the womb,”. Instead of saying the word “learning” I used the term “pick up on things”, by that I meant they soak up information. Some may argue that soaking up information is the same as learning. Learning is defined as “The acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught,”. Reflex is defined as “An action that is performed as a response to a stimulus and without conscious thought,”. These terms significantly differ, and deciding which factors of my hypothesis are evidence of “learning” or not is the goal of my research.
Babies who recognize their mother’s voice in the womb and outside the womb is evidence of learning. The child has learned the mom’s voice vibration in the womb and so that when it is born it knows her voice because of listening and memorizing it. Memorization and recognizing sound is learning to a fetus and would not be considered a reflex. The difference between a reflex and learning is that reflexes occur naturally to the human, like moving their hand from a stove when something is hot. Learning, to humans, is knowing that the stove is hot because there is a flame which I associate being the agent of burning and I do not touch it so I won’t get hurt again. Babies gain their reflexes through learning, they aren’t born with the reflexes of knowing voices and knowing what food they like; they learn this from their mother while still unborn.
Food preference is definitely learned in the womb and is not a reflex. Studies by Manella show that women who drank 300 mL of carrot juice 4 days a week for 3 weeks during their third trimester teaches their baby to gravitate towards the taste of carrots when they are born. This is a learned trait passed to the baby because they are taught that their mom likes carrots, or a certain other food such as junk food, so they must like that food as well.
However, some may argue that passing down PTSD is not considered a learning trait, but rather an emotional disorder passed down to them through their mom, even a reflex to become distressed because of the trauma they also encountered . A study was conducted on women who survived the tragedy of 9/11 who also happened to be pregnant at the time of the incident. They tested positive for PTSD but researchers were interested in seeing if the now born baby also had signs of PTSD since their birth. It is estimated that there were about 1,700 pregnant women in New York during the attack, 38 of those women gave researchers their saliva to conduct a study. Their cortisol levels were significantly low and so were their childrens when tested a year later, as well as showing signs of great distress at just the age of one years old. This is evidence that the word “learning” doesn’t pertain to every aspect of the fetal origins hypothesis.
Although there is lots of evidence to argue that the fetus is learning, there is also arguments made that the child has just developed reflexes or transmitted levels of their mothers health. The question is now, do babies begin learning these traits in the womb or are they just reflexes to them when they are born? Defining learning and reflex and comparing them was crucial to this research in order to understand which aspects of my hypothesis should be considered learning or not.
Fleming, A. (2014, April 8). How a child’s food preferences begin in the womb.
Costandi, M. (2011, September 9). Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children.