A brain imaging study says that babies can learn lullabies while still in utero.

The paper focused on 24 women during the final trimester of their pregnancies. Half of the women played the melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to their babies five days a week for the final stages of their pregnancies. 

The brains of the babies who heard the melody while in the womb reacted more strongly to the familiar melody both immediately and four months after birth when compared with the control group. The authors conclude that fetuses can recognize and remember sounds from the outside world well before they are born.  

Babies learn music in the womb

ERP and MMR amplitudes in both learning (dark bars) and control groups (light bars) at birth (left) and at the age of four months (right). Responses to unchanged sounds were stronger in the learning than control group at birth and at four months of age. Asterisks denote statistical significances, error bars denote standard errors of the mean. Credit and link: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078946

"Even though our earlier research indicated that fetuses could learn minor details of speech, we did not know how long they could retain the information. These results show that babies are capable of learning at a very young age, and that the effects of the learning remain apparent in the brain for a long time," says Eino Partanen, PhD candidate in the Cognitive Brain Research Unit at the University of Helsinki

"This is the first study to track how long fetal memories remain in the brain. The results are significant, as studying the responses in the brain let us focus on the foundations of fetal memory. The early mechanisms of memory are currently unknown," notes Dr. Minna Huotilainen, principal investigator.

The researchers believe that song and speech are most beneficial for the fetus in terms of speech development. According to the current understanding, the processing of singing and speech in the babies brains are partly based on shared mechanisms, and so hearing a song can support a baby's speech development. That also means there are possible detrimental effects of noise that can impact a fetus during the final trimester. An extensive research project on this topic is underway at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

Babies remember lullabies learned in the womb, finds a new study. Credit: Veikko Somerpuro

The research was conducted at the Academy of Finland's Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research as well as the Cognitive Brain Research Unit at the University of Helsinki Institute of Behavioural Sciences. 

Citation: Partanen E, Kujala T, Tervaniemi M, Huotilainen M (2013) Prenatal Music Exposure Induces Long-Term Neural Effects. PLoS ONE 8(10): e78946. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078946