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Learning Before Birth

By Editorial Staff
Published April 1, 1991

GAINESVILLE, Florida (FR) – Evidence that a fetus is sensitive to sounds coming from outside the mother’s womb could help parents get a head start on teaching their children speech and language skills, says a University of Florida professor.

“The time it takes for a child to learn anything in the first year of its life could be accelerated because it has now been shown that the fetus can receive sounds,” says William S. Brown, director of the University of Florida’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Communication Processes. “The notion that the child begins to relate to its environment before birth could accelerate and improve upon any learning that is associated with hearing.”

Brown’s findings build upon a 1989 study by Kenneth Gerhardt, chairman of UF’s Department of Communication Processes and Disorders, and Robert Abrams, a professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, that found that a fetus is exposed to certain low frequency noises. Brown joined that research team in 1990 and found that 60 percent of what is spoken at normal conversation level can be heard from inside the womb. To accelerate language learning, parents could, for example, read to a fetus, Brown said.

Most children only learn to speak a few words during their first year. But, if parents communicate with an unborn child, some may develop a better foundation for learning speech and language. Ultimately, talking to a fetus could result in better skills and fewer learning disabilities. “A child learns to talk by hearing,” Brown said. “So any learning paradigms that require a child to use his hearing could be used before birth.”

But the fetal ear’s sensitivity to noise from the outside world should also be a warning to parents, Brown said. “It means they have to be careful because loud noise could be harmful,” he said. The researchers are concerned that low frequency noise or excessive vibration might possibly damage the hearing of fetuses.

The research, based on a study that used sheep as well as humans, showed that the amniotic fluid inside a mother’s womb enhances low frequency sounds – especially the voices of men – while it dampens high-frequency noises. Prior to the 1980s, researchers believed fetuses developed in an insulated, noiseless environment.


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