Babies can actually learn lullabies before they're born

A new study has proven that infants can recognize a lullaby heard in the womb — and they can remember it for several months after they’re born. But more than that, fetuses exposed to music during the final trimester may experience neurological benefits as a result, including boosts to memory and language.

It’s well-documented that newborns can respond to sounds heard during the final trimester. Newborns can recognize their mother’s voice from other females, and even discriminate between the mother’s native language from other languages. Indeed, by the 27-week mark, fetal auditory learning becomes possible (which is another strong case for third-trimester personhood, but that’s another story).

But the extent to this learning ability — and it’s impact on neurological development — is something scientists are still grappling with. Now, as the new study from the University of Helsinki shows, we’re learning that pre-borns can not only remember music, their brains can get a boost from this kind of stimulus.

How I Wonder What You Are

The study looked at 24 women, all of them in the third trimester. Half of them played the melody of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to their unborn babies five days a week during the final stage of their pregnancies. Then, after birth, the scientists observed brain scans of the babies who heard the melody in utero, who reacted more strongly to the learned melody. This held true immediately after birth — and it was a response that lasted for an astounding four months afterwards.

Babies can actually learn lullabies before they're born

More technically, the scientists were looking for ERPs, or event-related potentials. This is the measured brain response, or neural representation, that’s the direct result of a specific cognitive event, in this case a learned acoustic pattern. The study showed that extensive prenatal exposure to a melody induces these neural representations, and they last for several months.

”Long-term plastic effects”

"This is the first study to track how long fetal memories remain in the brain,” noted co-author Minna Huotilainen in a press release. “The results are significant, as studying the responses in the brain let us focus on the foundations of fetal memory. The early mechanisms of memory are currently unknown.”

As the scientists note in the conclusion of their study:

Taken together, our results show that prenatal exposure to music can have long-term plastic effects on the developing brain and enhance neural responsiveness to the sounds used in the prenatal training, an effect previously only demonstrated in animal models.

Specifically, and though yet unproven, the researchers speculate that these “long-term plastic effects” could include the support of later speech development and the enhancement of spatial learning abilities. What’s more, structured sound environments could be used to treat those fetuses at risk of developing dyslexia — for whom basic auditory processing may be impaired.

Interestingly, there’s a downside as well. As the authors write:

Since the prenatal auditory environment modulates the neural responsiveness of fetuses, it seems plausible that the adverse prenatal sound environment may also have long-lasting detrimental effects [8]. Such environments may be, for example, noisy workplaces and, in case of preterm infants, neonatal intensive care units.

Great, more things for expectant mothers to worry about during their pregnancies. Just remember that this portion of the study is speculative.

Read the entire study at PLOS ONE: “Prenatal Music Exposure Induces Long-Term Neural Effects.”

Photo: Ipatov/Shutterstock.