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Study: Babies Recognize Syllables in the Womb

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All that talking you did to your bump—turns out you were on to something! Babies begin to understand human speech much earlier than previously thought, claims a new study published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). After examining brain scans of 12 infants born prematurely, French researchers concluded that babies can differentiate between syllables like “ga” and “ba” as early as three months before birth, or at just 28 weeks’ gestation.

“Our results demonstrate that the human brain, at the very onset of the establishment of a cortical circuit for auditory perception, already discriminates subtle differences in speech syllables,” says Dr. Fabrice Wallois.

Plus: What Babies Learn in the Womb

Babies involved in the study could also distinguish between male and female voices at that point in their development.

Because the brain scans were performed on babies born prematurely and not in utero, it is possible noises heard outside the womb sped up the development process, but the research team is confident these encounters did not significantly impact the babies’ language skills, or, consequently, the study’s findings.

According to Sophie Scott, professor and expert in speech perception at University College London, this research solidifies existing scientific thought that babies recognize their mother’s voices before they are born.

“We know that babies hear can hear their mother's voice in the womb and pick up on the pitch and rhythm,” said Scott in an interview with the BBC. "Newborn babies are soothed by their mother's voice from the minute they are born.”

Did you talk to your baby before he or she was born? Leave a comment.

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