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Baby talk: newborns recall words heard in the womb, research shows

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Don't save the baby talk until you've got a newborn to coo at: new research offers provocative evidence that an unborn fetus can not only hear sounds from the outside world, but is actually capable of recalling specific words in the days following birth.

In a study out of the University of Helsinki that builds on previous investigations, a team used EEG scans on 33 newborn babies to reach that conclusion. Their research started, however, when those infants were still in the womb: moms-to-be in their third trimester were divided into two groups, with only one group listening to repeating sequences of a nonsensical word ("tatata"). Occasionally, the word would be delivered with a subtle tweak in pronunciation or tone. In all, some study participants listened to that same word a whopping — and probably insufferable — 25,000 times.

"The fetus can learn much more detailed information than we previously thought."

Five days following birth, the team played those same recordings to each newborn. Babies who'd been exposed to the sounds in-utero showed a specific pattern of enhanced brain activity when they heard the word, as well as a reaction known as "a mismatch response" when they heard the altered version of "tatata." These reactions, researchers suggest, indicate a recollection of the word and its conventional delivery. "Once we learn a sound, if it's repeated to us often enough, we form a memory of it, which is activated when we hear the sound again," Eino Partanen, a cognitive neuroscientist and the study's lead author, told Science. "This leads us to believe that the fetus can learn much more detailed information than we previously thought."

Earlier research has evaluated the behaviors of newborns to make similar conclusions. In one study, newborns appeared to respond to theme songs from TV programs their mothers had watched during pregnancy. Other research has suggested that babies familiarize themselves with the patterns of their native language before they're born. But by evaluating neural patterns rather than simply behavior, and by indicating that babies may recall discrete words heard in the womb, this new study is a robust addition to that existing body of evidence.

Babbling at them before birth

Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily mean that parents-to-be can enhance their child's linguistic capacity by babbling at them before birth. Though the study offers intriguing clues into early development, it remains unclear whether these newborn memories persist beyond a few days, let alone whether the technique of talking to a fetus can actually accelerate the process of learning a language later in life.