Learning Begins in the Womb
Babies begin to learn in the mother’s womb, and by that I mean more than merely developing reflexes. They learn to recognize the sound of their mother’s voice and learn food preferences as well. No one would deny that distinguishing human voices is a cognitive skill that requires learning from experience; in other words, it’s knowledge. By contrast, a reflex is an action performed as a response to a stimulus without conscious thought. If the baby’s heart rate slows at the sound of the mother’s voice and spikes in response to a very loud sound, these would be reflexes. I will use the terms with care and demonstrate that fetuses don’t merely react to stimulus; they learn. It is commonly perceived that developing is the only thing going on with a fetus in the womb. Fetal origins hypothesis has debunked this idea and said that learning also is occuring which creates a big controversy along the lines of deciphering between what is learning and what is developing.
The argument on deck is that all of it development, which cannot be the case after researching the learning aspects the fetus goes through. I am not arguing that all of what goes on in the womb is learning, I know that there is also lots of development occurring in the fetuses body and brain but I am definitely advocating that babies also begin learning, even before they are born. You know the saying “they got that from their mother” that the mother embarrassingly says when their child does something good? That really means they learned that from their mother because while in utero the baby feeds off of when their mother is talking, what they eat the most, and the emotions she is feeling. 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?
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 proving that all the factors in my hypothesis are evidence of “learning” is the goal of my research. Providing evidence that fetuses memorize their mother’s voice, creating food preferences through their mom, and share the same distressed feelings as their mother are all learned before birth is the key to proving the fetal origins hypothesis. A great quote from Annie Murphy, TED Talk speaker on the topic of What babies learn before they are born reads, “Much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life — the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she’s exposed to, even the emotions she feels — are shared in some fashion with her fetus. They make up a mix of influences as individual and idiosyncratic as the woman herself. The fetus incorporates these offerings into its own body, makes them part of its flesh and blood. And often it does something more. It treats these maternal contributions as information, as what I like to call biological postcards from the world outside,”. I like to think that what Murphy means by “biological postcards” is that when the fetus gains new insight from its mom it holds onto that information like a postcard, therefore they are learning from her.
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. 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 and “evidence for learning” that in fact babies begin recognizing language and sounds through their mother’s voice in utero. Some may think of babies recognizing their mother’s voice in the womb is a reflex or developmental part of their time as a fetus because they believe it happens naturally therefore it must be a part of development , but in fact the fetus is learning. Back to the definition of learning which is, “to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience,”. With the definition in mind, think of being able to recognize their mom’s voice as the skill that they’re going to obtain, they learned to know the vibrations of her voice through studying it in their third trimester in the womb.
It’s not just sounds that babies learn while in the womb, preferences are acquired as well. Food preference is definitely learned in the womb and is not a reflex, they are learned through their mothers repetitive eating habits. Food preferences is another part of fetal origins that my opposing side might see as developmental. Food preferences in babies are definitely learned while in utero, they learn what they like by what their mother eats while pregnant. Some may argue back at this by saying things like women have cravings when they’re pregnant and only eat junk foods, which babies can’t eat. But it is not cravings I am referring to, I am talking about repetition in the food that is consumed by the mom. 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 often, this is a learned trait passed to the baby because they are taught that their mom likes carrots so they learn that they must like that food as well. There are huge teaching moments in the womb and mom’s cannot let that opportunity go to waste when there’s a chance to teach your kids to like vegetables before they’re even born! You can say that babies develop a food preference through their mom but this study aids in proving that is taught to them through repetition in utero.
Another thing that is learned in the womb is emotional distress, specifically PTSD that the mother develops while pregnant and the baby learns from the emotions their mom is undergoing. 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. The mothers 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 done by 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. 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 baby is learning from their mother before they are even born, whatever their mom feels they soak up that information like a sponge. Infants also experience post traumatic stress disorder even if they have not been through the trauma first hand. To the opposing view this topic alone could easily be seen as developmental but after referring back to the definition of learning we know the PTSD is obtained by the baby through “experience”. This is not to say that all infants or fetuses whose mother has been through serious trauma also experiences her pain but it is very likely and we know that through experimentation. This study helps to provide evidence that babies in utero also experience tragedies like their mother does, they learn from her emotions. I can see why one might say this disorder is passed down but after researching this study I am able to prove that because the fetus was in utero when the tragedy happened that they learned from their mom’s own experiences how to feel about the situation. The mother’s from the 9/11 tragedy had these emotions while pregnant and therefore taught their baby to share the same post traumatic stress disorder after they were born and while still in the womb.
This concept is one that no one really ever talked with until a couple decades ago so we want to know why all of a sudden this is so important? The fetal origins hypothesis is crucial in understanding why an infant is born with the cognitive abilities he or she has. Once we can understand why babies know what they know then it becomes easier to say that babies learn before their parents even start teaching them. Infants are way smarter than we believe them to be since their learning experience actually started a little under 9 months ago when they were growing inside their mother’s womb. Scientific author, Annie Murphy, also the speaker in the TED Talk titled What babies learn before they’re born says this, “Fetal origins is a scientific discipline that emerged just about two decades ago, and it’s based on the theory that our health and well-being throughout our lives is crucially affected by the nine months we spend in the womb,”. This hypothesis changes the whole outlook on learning stages in children. Murphy continues by saying, “When we hold our babies for the first time, we might imagine that they’re clean slates, unmarked by life, when in fact, they’ve already been shaped by us and by the particular world we live in. Today I want to share with you some of the amazing things that scientists are discovering about what fetuses learn while they’re still in their mothers’ bellies,”. Murphy agrees that babies’ brains are extraordinarily capable of being far more than just a clean slate once they are brought into this world.
To some, when they think of learning it may just be the alphabet, colors, shapes, or simple addition but learning in fact can be as small as beginning to recognize voices and knowing which food they prefer. Knowing that learning begins in utero through sounds, foods, and emotions may be a hard concept to wrap one’s head around but when given the evidence is truly eye opening to the fact that simple things can be taught in the womb by the mother to their unborn child. When the baby is born it is brought into this world with way more knowledge than we give them credit for, just think of their time in utero as a 9 month homeschooling where they learn all about the world and their mother is the teacher. It is a commonality that toddlers go to preschool to begin learning since school is associated with learning. I think people forget that learning is all around us from day one, and by day one I mean day 1 in the womb. Learning is not only shown in the classroom but is everywhere especially for young developing minds, fetuses feed off their mothers knowledge and acquire their very first lessons while still in the womb.
We know that there is lots of evidence to argue that the fetus is learning. The question is now, do babies begin learning these traits in the womb or are they just reflexes to them when they are born? Differing the learning stages a fetus goes through in utero from their developmental stages is my objective. Defining learning and reflex and comparing them was crucial to this research in order to understand that the aspects of my hypothesis are in fact considered learning. I understand that it is easiest to believe that fetuses only develop while in the womb but it is so far beyond that. In her TED Talk, Annie Murphy ends by stating, “Let me be clear. Fetal origins research is not about blaming women for what happens during pregnancy. It’s about discovering how best to promote the health and well-being of the next generation. That important effort must include a focus on what fetuses learn during the nine months they spend in the womb. Learning is one of life’s most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined,”. Having this fetal origins hypothesis in mind should open up doors in our brains that may be hard to break down but after hearing the incredible evidence researchers have put out should make all the most sense that babies in utero are learners.
I believe that mother’s are teaching their babies so much about the world they will soon live in to give them a head start. This world is so crazy to come into it with no prior knowledge but because of research and the fetal origins hypothesis we can be rest assured that our generation of babies and the nest to come are born fully equipped to handle what lies ahead of them. Babies and toddlers are often described as 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.).
Costandi, M. (2011, September 9). Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children.
Fleming, A. (2014, April 8). How a child’s food preferences begin in the womb.
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