Human Development

Babies “Serenaded” in the Womb Have More Developed Language Centers

Babies played recordings of their mother’s voice while they were in the womb were born with a more developed auditory cortex – the brain’s language-processing center.

What’s more fun than the latest example of how much the unborn child can learn? The latest news is courtesy of Ben Spencer, science reporter for The Daily Mail newspaper, based on an ingenious study by researchers at Harvard.

It’s long been known, as Spencer put it, that “The sound of a mother’s voice is one of the first sensory experiences a tiny baby has as they develop in the womb” and that babies “are able to recognize certain elements of language from the moment of their birth.”

What the new research (published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”) demonstrates is that the auditory cortex – the brain’s language center—is more developed in babies “serenaded” in the womb. How this was shown is truly clever.

Study leader Dr. Amir Lahav and colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital carried their tests out on babies who were born extremely prematurely—between 25 and 32 weeks—who would ordinarily still be in the womb.

They divided the 40 infants into two groups. Spencer reports

One group was played three hours of audio recordings of their mother’s voice and heartbeat every day for a month – at which time they would still have been in the womb during a normal birth.

The infants in the second group only heard routine background hospital noise.

What did they find, scanning the brains of each baby after 30 days? In layman’s terms that the babies who listened to the voice of their mother had a significantly larger auditory cortex. In more technical language, Lahav and his team wrote:

‘We demonstrate that the auditory cortex is more adaptive to womb-like maternal sounds than to environmental noise.

‘Results are supported by the biological fact that maternal sounds would otherwise be present in utero [the womb] had the baby not been born prematurely.

‘We theorise that exposure maternal sounds may provide newborns with the auditory fitness necessary to shape the brain for hearing and language development.’

And there is real, practical use for preemies, especially those who are in intensive care wards the first few weeks or months of their lives. The team wrote:

The use of recorded maternal sounds in the first month of life may be especially helpful in the population of newborns whose exposure to live maternal stimulation is often limited because of infrequent parental visits.

Obviously, this is not a panacea for all the problems preemies may face.

But while “Clearly, pre-term newborns have more working against them than can be fully compensated for by added exposure to maternal sounds,” it is also true, the authors write, “the present study begins to show the effect that maternal sounds could have on very early brain development.”
[Dave Andrusko, ]