What Babies Learn in the Womb

Are you an expectant mother? Do you wonder what your baby is up to, apart from all that kicking, of course? Well, you might be surprised to know that your baby is learning quite a few things.

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj

What Babies Learn in the Womb

Safe and secure, dark and cosy – that’s how you would describe the foetal world. Earlier, very little was known about this world. But now, thanks to advancements in medical technology and research, it has become possible to take a little peep into what actually happens there. And, this research has thrown up many interesting facts about the babies in the womb. As the tiny little foetus nestles inside its mama’s womb, it begins to experience various sensations. Initially, these relate to what’s happening within the mother’s body; but, later as the tiny one enters the second and third trimester of gestation, the sensations relate to a little of what is happening in the outside world too. Apart from experiencing sensations, baby dearest also learns to associate one experience with another. Those are her first baby steps in learning. So, for those of you who thought learning would begin only when you send your little one to kindergarten, here’s what you need to know – Babies begin to learn right from the womb. Here are some of the things they learn.

5 important things babies learn in the womb

  1. Lend a Ear: Foetuses are sensitive to sound. They listen to the sounds within the mother’s body (the gurgle of the stomach, the air going in and out of the lungs, the burp, etc.) around 18 weeks of gestation. By the time they reach 24 weeks, they become conscious of external sounds. During the last trimester of pregnancy, they, especially, identify and relate to mommy dear’s voice and their dad’s too. Expectant mothers have reported sensing their foetus’ movements in response to sound, during this period. In fact, foetuses even give a start or a jerk when they hear loud noises. When it comes to music, foetuses seem to relate to it according to the findings of a study by scientists at the University of Helsinki published in PLOS ONE in October 2013. The research on 12 expectant mothers and later on their newborns suggests that babies remember music they heard while in the womb up to four months after they are born.
  2. Touch and Feel: While the first movements (the little wiggles and squirms) occur around 16-22 weeks, around 24 weeks, babies in the womb begin to explore the lower part of their faces with their tiny little fingers. They learn to touch their lips and cheeks. By the time they are 28 weeks old, they come up with those famous little kicks of theirs! A study by scientists at the University of Dundee published in PLOS ONE, in June 2015, showed that foetuses between the 21st and 23rd week of gestation moved around and touched themselves in response to their mothers stroking the bellies.
  3. Pick up Language: Babies learn elements of their first language even while in the womb. The findings of a study by Kathleen Wemke et al, published in Current Biology in November 2009, suggests that babies’ learning of a language begins in the womb. Foetuses become familiar with the language spoken by their mother and understand its patterns of stress, intonation and rhythm. They even become familiar with the vocabulary. So, you mothers-to-be out there, mind your words!
  4. Smile and Frown: An article titled, ‘Foetuses may express emotion in the womb’, by James Meikle was published in Fairfax Digital in September 2003. The article mentions that – ‘Images published for the first time seem to suggest that unborn babies can smile, blink and cry weeks before they leave the womb.’ Yes, that’s quite true. And, today, we’ve come still further, thanks to 4D technology. Ultrasound scans have captured varied emotions on a foetus’ face – crying, squirming, smiling, wrinkling the nose, raising a brow and so on. Often, these are reactions to what the mother may feel or do. If she is angry, upset or under stress, it can certainly reflect on the little baby.
  5. Sense Taste: While taste buds begin to form around 8 weeks, around 14-15 weeks they are developed enough to enable the foetus to identify and discriminate between different flavours. So, if the mother has garlic on a particular day and there are traces of that flavour in the amniotic fluid, baby dearest swallows it and makes a grimace! The next day, if it is honey and maple syrup with a cup of oats, baby takes an extra gulp of the amniotic fluid! The findings of a study by Julie Mennella et al published in PubMed, in June 2001, suggests that a mom’s diet during pregnancy can influence a baby’s food preferences later. Therefore, expectant mothers, watch what you eat!