What we Learn Before we are Born

‘So, here I am, upside-down in a woman,’ says the witty hero in Ian McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell. 


The unborn baby, only weeks away from his birth, relates a loose retelling of Hamlet while eavesdropping from his (let’s assume he’s a boy) dark and fluid home. As he hears his mother and her lover plot the death of his father, the eloquent foetus expounds on art and science, podcasts and wines, his mother’s emotional state and her digestive system.


It’s a far-fetched novel of course, a funny and clever one, but recent advancements in technology and research do suggest that the unborn baby and the outside world have a more dynamic relationship than has been previously thought.


American science writer, Annie Murphy Paul, calls this emerging field ‘a gray zone between nature and nurture’.


“Some of the most important learning we ever do happens before we’re born while we’re still in the womb,” Paul said in a 2011 Ted Talk and she asks the question, is the time before birth as crucial as early childhood?


The new research called ‘foetal origins’ suggests that a mother’s voice and intonation, the music of her favourite TV programme, and the tastes and smells of what she eats and drinks, are all stored away by the unborn baby and ‘recognised’ after birth.


These skills are acquired to help survival outside the uterus, the theory being that babies in utero instinctively want to be safe once born so they take their lead from their mother.


It’s thought, for instance, that flavours and even smells can be detected in the womb’s amniotic fluid so that babies whose mothers eat particular foods, such as spices or garlic, may recall the flavours and so prefer those tastes after birth.


Also known is that the sound-processing parts of the brain start working in the last trimester of pregnancy. Sound carries quite well through the mother’s abdomen, so researchers believe foetuses can listen to speech within the womb, the most often listened to being the mother’s voice.


“If you put your hand over your mouth and speak, that’s very similar to the situation the foetus is in,” says cognitive neuroscientist, Eino Partanen of the University of Helsinki in Science magazine.


“You can hear the rhythm of speech, rhythm of music, and so on.”


Remarkably, it’s been found that babies even cry in the accent of their mothers – apparently, French babies cry with an upward inflection; German babies cry with a downward inflection.


Paul describes how an experiment to test a baby’s recognition of its mother’s voice was carried out. When offering a breast, let’s say the right one, the baby hears the mother’s recorded voice. Then a recording of an unknown woman’s voice was heard when the baby was put to the left breast. Within half an hour, it became clear that the baby had developed a preference for the right breast.


It seems that babies in utero even have time to play. Pushing on the uterine walls with their feet and pulling the umbilical cord, sucking their fingers or thumbs, all help them to develop reflexes needed in the outside world. Babies are also thought to practice blinking and ‘breathing’ while in the womb and there’s evidence too that unborn babies learn to metabolise according to the conditions they will encounter after birth.


The example of babies born during the Nazi siege of western Holland is telling. Shortage of food as well as a very harsh winter in 1944-45 caused untold hardship and starvation in Holland and for those women who became pregnant during that time – around 40,000 – more instances of low birth rates, infant mortality, birth defects and still births were recorded.  Later on in life, these same babies suffered from more obesity, heart disease and conditions such as diabetes, than the general population.


It seems that a foetus, faced with the likelihood of a harsh environment once born, adjusts its metabolism in anticipation of what it will encounter at birth.  In other words, when the babies were born, they had already begun to adapt their bodies to cling on to every calorie even though they would grow up in a high calorie environment.


Everything is shared with the foetus and these maternal contributions are like ‘biological postcards from the outside’, says Paul. Messages to the baby are not, however, limited to diet, sound and taste.  It’s also thought that a foetus learns from the stress levels and emotional state of its mother.


Researchers have found that babies born to the 1,700 pregnant women who experienced at first hand the World Trade Centre terrorist attack in 2001, were found to be susceptible to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The mothers, it seems, had passed on a vulnerability, a ‘be careful’ message.


These extraordinary findings are just the beginning of research into foetal origins but Paul is convinced:


“The world has its way with us long before we’re born.”


That, in a nutshell, is how McEwan’s knowing foetal protagonist must feel.


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