Language development may start in the womb

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When Cherie was pregnant with her first son, Juan, she spoke to her unborn baby all the time.

"I would often walk along the Brisbane River in my lunchtime and tell him about our day - what we were doing, what was happening, what he was listening to at work.

"Other times we - my husband, Leland, and I - would tell him how welcome he was, how loved he was [and] what we were looking forward to doing with him when he was born."

She also sang to him (usually, 'You are my sunshine'), read him books and held her iPod against her bump to play him classical music.

"Back then I had no idea of the benefits to baby, but I just knew that he was there and listening. It just felt right," says Cherie, author of 'It's Your Birth…Right?'.

As her pregnancy progressed, Juan began to respond to Cherie, providing "very clear feedback" in the form of movement.

When Juan was born, Cherie began to see the benefits even more.

For instance, when Juan had his very first bath, he grew distressed. As soon as Cherie and Leland started singing, 'You are my sunshine', he stopped crying "immediately".

Cherie's experience is consistent with new research.


It found that "…human language development may start really early -- a few days after birth," said Utako Minai, associate professor of linguistics and team leader on the study.

"Fetuses can hear things, including speech, in the womb.

"It's muffled, like the adults talking in a 'Peanuts' cartoon, but the rhythm of the language should be preserved and available for the fetus to hear, even though the speech is muffled."

For this study, researchers recruited 24 women who were roughly eight months pregnant. They used a fetal biomagnetometer, which can monitor a fetus's heartbeat, breathing and other body movements.

They enlisted bilingual speakers to two make two recordings, one each in English and Japanese. They then played those recordings to the unborn babies.

The researchers found that fetal heart rates changed when the fetuses heard Japanese after hearing English, but didn't change when they heard a second English passage.

"These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero.

"Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero."

Consequently, they said, hearing the rhythmic properties of language before birth "may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language".

Clinical Psychologist Dr Nicole Highet is the Executive Director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence, COPE.

While she says these findings fit in with previous thinking about an infant's ability to hear in utero, she was interested to see just how strong the results of this study were.

She says when your baby hears you speak in a "negative, angry or distressing" way, that's likely to be linked with stress and the release of cortisol, which crosses the placenta. So those kinds of sounds have a negative association for your baby.

However, when you're relaxed and talking lovingly to your child, Dr Highet says it's likely to have a "calming effect" on your baby.

"Singing to the baby is also likely to be very positive, as it has the capacity to be familiar and soothing."

If you talk lovingly to your baby while you're pregnant, Dr Highet says your baby is then likely to then feel reassured and comforted by your voice after she's born.

Talking or singing to your baby isn't just good for your baby; Dr Highet says it can also strengthen the bond you feel towards your child.

Cherie is now pregnant with her second son and she and Leland enjoy talking, singing and reading to their unborn baby.

But this time around is "even more special," she says.

That's because Juan, who's now four, is also embracing the idea of connecting with his brother before he's born.

"He sings to him, makes silly noises [and] tells him that he loves him."

Did you (or do you) talk or sing to your baby before they were born?