Baby's Listening Early, So Watch What You Say

New research finds newborns recognize native and foreign sounds, which suggests learning of language begins in the womb.


Babies are learning earlier than most of us think, The New York Times reports. How much earlier? Before they're even born, researchers say.

Forty American and 40 Swedish newborns — ages 7 hours to 75 hours — were examined to see if they could distinguish between English and Swedish vowel sounds, the article says. The babies were given pacifiers, and researchers counted the number of the babies' pacifier sucks as they listened to Swedish and English vowel sounds.

Researchers saw that the American babies "consistently sucked more when hearing Swedish vowel sounds, suggesting that the infants had not heard them before, and Swedish babies sucked more when hearing English vowels," according to The New York Times article. Sucking longer is an established response in infants to something that is unfamiliar or novel to them.

Researchers cited hearing the language in utero for the babies' ability to understand the difference between native and non-native sounds because learning so quickly after birth is unlikely. Fetuses do develop hearing at around the 26th week of pregnancy and are capable of responding to sounds in the womb.

These new findings add more evidence to the earlier theory that the newborn brain is not a blank slate. In 2009, researchers found that newborns' cries are similar to their parents' speech patterns, suggesting that infants are born with the innate sense to mimic the sounds of their parents. Also, Crib Notes previously reported on a study that found newborns can follow musical patterns.

When it comes to your baby's hearing, know that all newborns receive a hearing test before leaving the hospital. Plus, babies will begin to imitate sounds at about 3 months of age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Chatting face-to-face with your baby as well as following her gaze and saying the names of items out loud are ways parents can help encourage their babies' language. Head over to our Are You Talkin' To Me page for more clues about how babies learn language.