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Summary

When babies begin to hear the world around them, the most important sound they’ll discover is their mother’s voice. This familiar noise will calm and soothe them and lays the foundation for their social and emotional development, language and speech1.

It’s a fascinating area of study and one which we’ve been exploring in detail. Read more about the science behind your baby’s early language development in our Hello In There series.

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Early learning

Your unborn baby will start to respond to noise sometime between the 24th and 30th weeks of pregnancy2. The sound that’ll have by far the most impact on them is your voice. Talking to your bump is not just a great way for you to bond. It will actually help your baby to learn. Able to hear everything you say, they will recognise your individual voice and prefer it to any other sound. They’ll also be able to hear, albeit less clearly, the voices of those around you, and the effect of listening to speech will have a lifelong impact, teaching them to understand and process sound as well as helping to develop memory skills and strengthen family bonds1.


Watch ‘What we learn before we’re born'

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul wrote Origins, an investigation of how life in the womb shapes our future experiences, while pregnant with her second child. Her fascinating TEDTalk explains in simple terms the research into language and learning in unborn babies. Watch it here.

Newborns respond specifically to language, as opposed to other sounds3. Studies tell us that they show increased brain activity when listening to speech, compared to the same speech played backwards, or silence. Given that they have this reaction shortly after birth, it’s thought that foetuses have a similar response to voices and speech patterns in the womb3.

“The sound that’ll have the most impact on them is your voice.”

In a study to measure this, pregnant women played a recording of a ‘nonsense word’ to their bump, several times a week, in their last few months of pregnancy. After birth these newborns recognised the nonsense word while infants who’d not been exposed to the word previously showed no reaction. Babies who’d heard the recordings also demonstrated that they recognised when the word’s pitch or vowel sounds changed, and the response was strongest in the babies who’d heard the recording the most4.

“Unborn babies recognise the patterns of their native language.”

Mother tongue

Not only can babies recognise words they learnt in the womb, but, incredibly, studies have shown that unborn babies recognise the patterns of their native language, preferring them to languages they haven't heard before5.

One study clearly demonstrated that, in the later stages of pregnancy, unborn babies could not only differentiate their mother’s voice from other people’s voices, they could also recognise their native language (in this case English) over a foreign language (Mandarin)3. So babies start to make sense of language – and make their first tentative steps towards speech and socialisation – before they’re even born.

Next Steps

  • Try to spend a few minutes every day talking or singing to your baby. 
  • If you’re lucky enough to be bilingual, why not try out both languages on your bump?
  • Try reading a favourite children’s book or nursery rhyme to your baby. They may even start to remember it.
  • See if you notice any changes in your baby’s behaviour. Remember they’ll find your voice calming, so expect less movement rather than more.
  • Dad and siblings can get involved too – they’ll have to get nice and close to the bump to make sure they’re heard.
  • If talking directly to your bump really isn't for you, don’t worry, your baby is learning about your voice and language every time you speak.

You can find out more about your baby’s response to sound in the womb by visiting Hello In There, our insightful series of expert articles and videos.

View references

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1. Fifer WP, Moon CM. The role of mother’s voice in the organization of brain function in the newborn. Acta Paediatr Suppl 1994;397:86-93

2. Graven SN, Browne JV. Auditory development in the foetus and infant. Newborn Infant Nurs Rev 2008;8(4):186-93.

3. Kisilevsky BS et al. Fetal sensitivity to properties of maternal speech and language. Infant Behav Dev 2008;32:59-71.

4. Partanen E et al. Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2013;110:15145-5.

5. Voegtline KM et al. Near-term fetal response to maternal spoken voice. Infant Behav Dev 2013;36:526-33.

Last reviewed: 19th May 2016
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