Babies lulled by what they hear in the womb
Babies in the womb

While it was once thought that babies were born ‘blank canvases’ with no knowledge or memory, research tells us otherwise. Not only that, science confirms that sounds babies hear in utero can help calm them post-birth.

Foetal memory

Back in the late 1980s, scientists were still trying to work out just what made foetuses and new babies tick. “Nothing much has been known about foetal behaviour. The general view has been that newborns are not able to do very much: they are born with reflexes but have no memory. We have been able to prove memory develops earlier,” Professor Peter Hopper, of the school of psychology at Queen’s University in Belfast told The Independent. (No sh … kidding, Sherlock!)

Good Neighbours

With this in mind, Professor Hopper created the suitably ’80s-influenced Neighbours experiment to test what developing foetuses remembered and responded to. Remember Neighbours was (and is) extremely popular in the UK.

He studied two groups of pregnant women – one lot that did and another that didn’t watch popular Aussie TV soap Neighbours. He found that as early as 24 weeks gestation, babies whose mothers did watchNeighbours began to respond to the theme tune from the show, with changes in heart rate and tendency towards reduced movement (or ‘calming down’).

This confirmed that foetuses were indeed listening to the world around them pre-birth and that sound could have a calming effect.

Remembering sounds post-birth

It’s not just music that developing babies can ‘learn’ and remember. Neuroscientist Eino Partanen of the University of Helsinki conducted a study on expectant mums, asking some to play a recording to their unborn babies on a regular basis. The recording included a made-up word – ‘tatata’.

When they played the same recording to babies once they were born, the babies of mothers who had played the recording recognised and responded to the ‘tatata‘ word, while those who hadn’t heard it did not.

They deduced that this meant language development begins pre-birth and that it may also provide clues to early intervention approaches for children at risk of dyslexia or auditory processing disorders.

What babies learn before birth

Kidspot staffer Kylie Matthews can vouch for the results of this research. “I’m a big fan of The Simpsons and during my pregnancy, especially in the five weeks prior to giving birth, I went on a total binge of the show,” she recalls.

“A couple of weeks after my daughter was born, I inadvertently discovered that the The Simpsons theme song had an almost immediate calming influence on her. This was a welcome revelation and I used it to my advantage, cranking up that little number to get her off to sleep many times.”

Annie Murphy Paul is a researcher in foetal origins – the life of a baby in the nine months before it’s born. In her recent TED talk she spoke about what babies learn before birth and the things they hear.

Foetuses come to know the voices of their mother and other family members from about four months gestation (apparently these voices sound something like Charlie Brown’s teacher, kind of muffled!) Amazingly, they also learn the sound and tone of the language spoken by their mother, with babies from different countries crying with different language-specific intonations.

Annie says that the way a foetus learns is very complex and organic, making in-utero education an unlikely trend. (Phew!)

How can all this research help us get our babies to sleep?

This research confirms what many of us already knew, that our babies really are listening to us pre-birth, that we should be talking to them often and that it might just be possible to choose a particular sound (or song) to use post-birth to settle our babies.

Mum Petra Mitosinkova did this by accident. She played this song over and over while she was pregnant, only to find that when she played it to her newborn Alex, post birth, he calmed down and drifted off to sleep.

“I definitely think he recognises the song as I used to listen and sing it while pregnant. I recall he used to move in my belly as a sign he liked it. To settle him I have tried other songs too but he wouldn’t react at all. Only this song.” Petra told The Mirror Online.

YouTuber Kasper-Sabine Tobias planned  ahead: “My wife and I had read that playing a specific melody to your baby in the womb could soothe her/him when played outside of the womb after they are born. The first time our baby was fussy I began to sing this song from Away We Go, which is mine and my wife’s favourite movie together, and right away she began to relax. She now will fall asleep to this song as well. Try it if you have a baby on the way.”

They captured her dozing off to Away We Go - see below. So cute!

Parents who are thinking ahead might do very well to choose a ‘settling song’ to play during pregnancy. Your baby may sleepily thank you for it, post-birth!

This article was written by Pip Lincolne for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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