New research findings on the ability of a foetus to recognize its mother’s voice and even distinguish it from other female voices confirms what the scientists have speculated about for more than twenty years—that experiences in the womb help shape newborn preferences and behavior.
Dr. Barbara Kisilevsky, a Queen’s University professor of nursing along with a team of psychologists at Queen’s and obstetricians in Hangzhou, China, found that foetuses are capable of learning in the womb and can remember and recognize their mother’s voice before they are even born. Their research findings are published in the international journal Psychological Science.
While previous research on infant development has demonstrated that newborns prefer to listen to their own mother’s voice to that of a female stranger and will even change their behavior to elicit their mother’s voice, Dr. Kisilevsky’s research proves that this `preference/recognition’ begins before birth.
‘This is an extremely exciting finding that provides evidence of sustained attention, memory and learning by the foetus,’ says Dr Kisilevsky. ‘The foetuses learn about their mother’s voice in the womb and then prefer it after birth. Our findings provide evidence that in-utero experience has an impact on newborn/infant behavior and development and that voice recognition may play a role in mother-infant attachment.’
According to Dr. Kisilevsky, the findings also suggest that the foundation for speech perception and language acquisition is laid before birth. Therefore, the precocious language processing abilities observed in newborns and young infants may not be due to a hardwired speech-processing module in the brain as has been assumed, but may instead stem from the interaction of the foetus with its environment.
Along with researchers at Zhejiang University, China, Dr. Kisilevsky tested 60 foetuses. Thirty foetuses were played a two-minute audiotape of their own mother reading a poem and 30 foetuses were played the voice of a female stranger reading the poem. The researchers found that the foetuses responded to their own mother’s voice with heart-rate acceleration and to the stranger’s voice with a heart-rate deceleration. The responses lasted during the two-minute tape as well as for at least two minutes after the offset of the voices.
‘These results tell us that the foetuses heard and responded to both voices and that there was sustained attention to both voices,’ notes Dr. Kisilevsky, ‘But, because they responded differently to the two voices, we know they had to recognise their own mother’s voice. We believe they are probably already learning about language in general and their own language specifically.’
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