Babies Recognize Words Heard In Womb, Says Fairly Alarming Study

Elaine Radford - Author

Aug. 27 2013, Updated 12:28 p.m. ET

Babies may recognize words that they hear in the womb. Oh boy. A new study from an international team of European researchers suggests that when a mother-to-be is giving up alcohol, smoking, and maybe even caffeine, she may have to think about watching her language as well.

The team said their research showed that babies in the womb hear the words being said around them — and they remember them too. The researchers published their findings online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The claim may seem incredible. And it may also seem pretty difficult to prove, since newborn babies can’t tell us what they remember.

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However, Science said that the team decided to use EEG sensors attached to the newborn babies to test their brain waves. From the EEG readings, they can tell whether or not a baby is responding to a word they’ve heard before.

Of course, you might ask how they knew the baby didn’t hear the word after being born, instead of while in the womb. That’s where the scientists got sneaky.

To get ready for the tests, they asked pregnant Finnish mothers to play a recording of a made-up word, “tatata,” some 25,000 times.

That word was chosen because it sounded like it could be a real word in Finnish. Yet it wasn’t. So they could be confident that the baby had only heard the word spoken when the mother-to-be had played the tape.

The team also had a control group of pregnant women who didn’t play the recording.

University of Helsinki’s Eino Partanen, one of the researchers, said there was a definite difference between the two groups when they played the word to newborns hooked up to the EEG. The babies who had heard the recordings in the womb showed EEG readings that suggested they’d recognized the word.

And the EEG readings were strongest for babies whose mothers had played the tape the most frequently.

If the research holds up, it could be evidence that babies start learning words in the womb.


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