Can a fetus learn while still in utero? Do they remember what they’ve learned after birth? A carefully designed study by James and colleagues suggests that the answer to both of these questions is yes.

To answer these questions, two groups of pregnant mothers were randomly selected for this study. Fetal behavior was studied within three days prior to birth (fetal studies) and again at three-five days after birth (neonatal studies). Participants were divided into two experimental groups, the “Music Group” and the “Control Group”. In the Music Group, music was played for three hours through an earphone on the mother’s abdomen during the fetal studies. A rhythmical musical piece was chosen with a wide range of tones and was repeated 80 times across the three hours. For subjects in the Control Group, an earphone was placed on the mother’s abdomen without playing any sound. Finally, during the neonatal, post-birth studies, the same musical piece was played repeatedly over one hour (20 times) for all babies in both the Control and Music Groups.

The authors found that the babies who had been exposed to music prenatally showed very different behavior compared to the babies who had not been exposed prenatally. These behavioral differences were observed in third hour of music exposure prenatally, and also after birth. Additionally, in the neonatal studies, the babies in the Music Group showed a more alert and awake behavioral response after repeated exposure to music.

This research is remarkable, because it shows that fetuses are able to learn in utero, and that they remember what they have learned after birth. A more recent study by Partanen and colleagues has expanded on these findings to reveal that prenatal learning can last as long as four months postnatally (for review, see https://www.nuryl.com/2016/07/12/shaping-the-fetal-brain-evidence-for-long-term-learning-through-music-exposure/). Importantly, this learning likely lasts much longer. There are many more studies that still need to be done to determine what exactly is happening in the fetal brain during learning and just how long these changes last. However, these studies emphasize just how critical the auditory environment can be for pre- and postnatal development.

References:

James D.K., Spencer C.J., and Stepsis B. W. (2002). Fetal learning: a prospective randomized controlled study. Ultrasound Obstet Gynecol 2002; 20: 431–438.

Partanen E., Kujala T., Tervaniemi M., Huotilainen M. (2013). Prenatal Music Exposure Induces Long-Term Neural Effects. PLoS ONE 8(10): e78946.