Learning In the Womb
Fetuses have enough cognitive ability to absorb information, process sensory data, and enter the world with a set of preferences that they developed by being in their mother’s womb during their gestation period. Learning is a huge part of what goes on with the fetus as it is growing in the womb, even up until the last day it is fully grown and ready to come out. Lots of people would disagree and say babies don’t begin learning until they are born. The argument here is that if a one-day-year-old newborn is learning why can’t a 270-day fetus also be learning?
We can begin exploring this idea by taking a look at how babies in the womb absorb information. By absorbing information such as the vibration of their mother’s voice babies are learning. While the mother is talking when pregnant the baby begins to pick up on the vibration that leads to the womb and know that it’s their mom’s. When the baby is born it knows right away the difference between anyone else’s voice and their mom’s. The baby gravitates toward their mother’s voice because it was comforting to them in the womb and is now a sign of comfort outside of the womb. The fetus learns through sound vibrations so that way when they are born they will automatically know their mom’s voice and know that that is a safe place.
At the University of Washington, co-author and director of The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences Patricia Kuhl says the mother’s vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest and the fetus locks onto them. She also says, “Sensory and brain mechanisms for hearing are developed at 30 weeks of gestational age, and the new study shows that unborn babies are listening to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy and at birth can demonstrate what they’ve heard,”. The study that proved this statement was conducted at Pacific Lutheran University of Tacoma, and professor of psychology there, Christine Moon, says previously it was believed that babies discriminate language in the first few months of birth and proves this is the first study done that shows fetuses prenatally learn language, which moves the results from the first six months of birth to before birth. The study was conducted in Sweden with one-day old babies and was described as this: “ babies listened to vowel sounds in their native tongue and in foreign languages. Their interest in the sounds was captured by how long they sucked on a pacifier that was wired into a computer measuring the babies’ reaction to the sounds. Longer or shorter sucking for unfamiliar or familiar sounds is evidence for learning, because it indicates that infants can differentiate between the sounds heard in utero. In both countries, the babies at birth sucked longer for the foreign language than they did for their native tongue,”. With this information we are able to provide aid in the fact that babies begin recognizing language and sounds through their mother’s voice in utero.
It’s not just sounds that babies learn while in the womb, preferences are acquired as well. Food preferences are learned through their mothers repetitive eating habits. Some pregnant mother’s have cravings while pregnant, eating too much sweets and junk food, which may lead to their baby wanting more desserts when born. But a different study was done that involves something much healthier for their mom and baby; carrots. In Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism; Complementary Foods and Flavor Experience: Setting the Scene an experiment was done on pages 44-45 by author Julie Mennella with random pregnant women who planned on breastfeeding were assigned to three different groups. Group one was in their third trimester and drank carrot juice for several days, group two was in their first three months of lactation and drank carrot juice for several days of the week as well, and the final group drank only water. When born, the babies were introduced to regular cereal and carrot cereal, the babies whose mothers drank carrot juice gravitated and had a liking toward the carrot juice than the babies whose moms drank water. The babies who weren’t exposed to carrots either from amniotic fluid or breast milk were reluctant to try the carrot flavored cereal and showed this through facial expressions and ate way less of it than the babies who were exposed to carrots in the womb. With this information we can conclude that babies learn from their mother’s daily food intake and agree with whatever food their mother ingests more, whether it be negative like junk food or positive like the carrot juice.
Here’s where I discuss the fine line between learning and developing in fetuses. In a TED Talk called What Babies Learn Before They’re Born speaker Annie Murphy Paul tells about the fetal origin hypothesis. Annie Murphy is an advocate that learning begins in the womb and tells about different instances when the fetus is learning. One study she talks about was conducted on pregnant women who were in New York during the 9/11 tragedy who developed PTSD. Professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical Sentre in New York, Rachel Yehuda, and her colleagues conducted an experiment with these women and then their born babies a year later. They found that the women in their third trimester who had been diagnosed with PTSD baby’s also showed high levels of stress in the only one-year-old infant. While discussing this experiment in her TED Talk, Annie Murphy uses the words, “the mothers with PTSD had passed on a vulnerability to the condition while they were still in utero,”. I find this word “passed” to be the key point in my argument that there’s a fine line when defining what learning is. By using the word “passed” I believe Murphy throws away her point in proving that babies are learning in the womb, the fetus does not learn to develop PTSD, it is passed onto them. So because the mother has undergone traumatic stress during pregnancy it is likely the child also develops it, just like Yehuda’s study shows but the PTSD is developed not learned.
Babies and toddlers are often described at sponges who pick up on everything around them, but through science we’ve discovered that actually they’ve been sponges since they were fetuses. Newborns come into the world the way they are because of what they learn and experience through their mother in the womb.
“Can Trauma Be Transmitted Intergenerationally?” – Sandra Hercegova. (n.d.).
Mennella, J., & Trabulsi, J. (2012). Complementary Foods and Flavor Experiences: Setting the Foundation. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, 60, 40-50. doi:10.2307/48507172
Murphy, Annie(2011) What Babies Learn Before They are Born. Retrieved from TED Talks.
While in womb, babies begin learning language from their mothers. (n.d.). Retrieved from Washington University.