During my first pregnancy, I was surprised to find I felt a strong pull to talk with my baby. Every day was a new experience for me, and so many parts of my pregnancy felt unreal.
When I would lie in bed at night chatting about the day or simply saying, "Hello in there," I found I felt more connected to my child. It was hard to imagine that inside my growing belly a human being already existed, but the more I talked to the baby in my womb the more comfortable I felt with the idea of becoming a mother.
As it turns out, having a chat with her unborn child doesn’t just make the mother feel connected, it actually has an impact on her developing baby.
Science has found that babies begin learning in the womb and that they are forming memories about the things they are exposed to the most before they are born.
The Science of Prenatal Memories
Since scientists can’t ask babies what they remember from their time spent in their mothers’ wombs, they have had to get creative when it comes to figuring out what newborns remember.
Researchers have relied heavily on studying animals to indicate how early memories are formed, why they are forgotten, and what kind of implications these memories have for a child.
What most moms know simply from observation is that most children and adults can’t report detailed memories from before their birth. Many have hypothesized on why this is the case (such as Freud’s theory of repression), but it wasn’t until recently that we better understood the facts.
Observing the brains of infant rats clued researchers in to what happens to early memories, and they published their findings in the journal Science. The truth is, the infant brain is developing at a rapid pace.
This growth requires the formation of new brain cells, and these new brain cells actually crowd out the connections made by early memories. When researchers slowed down the brain development of infant mice, they actually found that early memories were more cemented in their brain.
The application of this finding to human beings is that the developing brain is making memories in the womb, but as your child grows older their amazing neurological development is erasing those memories.
It’s fascinating knowing that babies start learning in the womb and can still remember many of the things they learn after birth.
Want to know more? Here are the facts on what your baby remembers from the womb.
Your baby remembers the words you say.
It turns out that talking to my baby while she was growing inside of me wasn’t as silly as it sometimes felt. The truth is, she was forming memories of the words I said repeatedly—and your baby is too.
A team of scientists at the University of Helsinki discovered the extent of a newborn’s language memory by giving mothers a recording of a completely made-up word. These mothers were asked to play this recording repeatedly over their last months of pregnancy. By the time the babies were born, they had heard the sound more than 25,000 times.
After the babies were born, the researchers used EEG technology to test for recognition of the word. What they found was that when compared with babies who hadn’t heard the word during pregnancy, the brains of babies who had been exposed to the word in the womb remembered it after birth.
The practical implications of this information aren’t clear. Typically mothers are discouraged from playing loud recordings near their womb because they may cause overstimulation. Researchers hope further studies can reveal the potential uses for the discovery of language learning in utero.
Your baby remembers your voice.
It isn’t just the words your babies hear that matter, the people they hear most frequently have an impact their prenatal memories, too.
Research has compared how infants respond to the voices of strangers to those they hear most often during the third trimester, and it was undeniable that they prefer familiar voices. It shouldn’t be surprising that among all of the familiar voices they heard after birth, babies showed preference for the voice of their mothers.
Babies remember their birth mother's native language.
Amazingly, babies are forming memories of their mother’s native language long before they start talking. One study took a close look at the language memory of internationally adopted children, specifically those adopted immediately following birth.
What they found was that although these babies hadn’t been exposed to their mother’s native tongue since their birth, they recognized it and showed preference for it. These findings indicate that babies begin to learn their native language in the womb, according to The New York Times.
Your baby remembers the music you play.
We’ve all seen those prenatal speakers—the ones that can be attached to a mother's growing bump, but is there any merit to this gadget? Or are manufacturers simply looking to make a buck off of expectant parents?
The answer is yes and no. Babies do remember the music they hear in the womb, according to research by the University of Helsinki, but there isn’t any known development associated with playing it loudly near your growing belly during pregnancy.
Researchers instructed 12 expectant mothers to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” five days a week during the last several weeks of their pregnancy, and they also followed a control group of 12 mothers who did not.
These babies were exposed to the song again immediately following their birth and at the age of 4 months. Researchers found that they exhibited a brain response to the song that the control group did not.
Your baby remembers the food you eat.
The old joke about eating for two may actually have some merit. If you’re hitting up your favorite taco place twice a week (thanks to those killer pregnancy cravings), your baby is getting a taste, too.
There is convincing research that suggests when your baby gulps in the amniotic fluid that surrounds them in the womb, the flavor changes based on what mom has been eating lately, according to NPR. Additionally, after babies start eating solid foods, research suggests they show preference for foods they were repeatedly exposed to in the womb.
Why Prenatal Memories Matter
The science behind the formation of prenatal memories is fascinating. If babies lose track of most of their memories from their time in the womb, why does any of this matter?
Researchers believe that infant memories include more than the words they hear or the music they’re exposed to and that the effects of these memories aren’t all positive.
The truth is, some researchers are certain that prenatal exposure to stressful noises may have an adverse effect on neurological development. Because of this, they believe there may be value in encouraging mothers to avoid situations that involving yelling, loud music, or obtrusive workplace noises.
When it comes to the food you eat while you’re pregnant, this research matters because scientists believe that what you eat may influence your child’s own food preferences after birth.
Of course, don’t feel anxious if your pregnancy aversion kept you from eating those dark, leafy greens every day. You can always change your child’s palate by repeatedly exposing them to new flavors once they start eating solid foods.
So what does this research mean for the expectant mom? It means you don’t have to change much about what you are doing already: Avoid stressful or overstimulating noises if possible and keep chatting with your unborn baby.