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Congratulations – you’re pregnant! Your doctor has given you the good news. But did you know that language development starts even before birth?
Babies can already hear before birth, and you can expose them to language while still in the womb. Researchers believe that this lays the foundation for future language development.
Let’s find out more about this fascinating world of your unborn baby.
1. When does your baby start to hear?
Four to five weeks: Ears start to form.
Nine weeks: Indentations appear where ears will grow.
Eighteen weeks: Your baby hears its first sound.
Twenty-four weeks: Baby becomes more sensitive to sound.
Twenty-five to twenty-six weeks: Your baby responds to your voice and other sounds.
Different types of research
Now that we know that your baby hears their first sound during week eighteen, you may wonder: How can we know this?
Researchers used various methods to investigate unborn babies’ responses to sound, especially their mothers’ voices.
At first, researchers asked two people to talk to the mother in two different languages. Using ultrasound, researchers could see that babies were sensitive to differences in sounds by measuring changes in their heart rates.
But one question remains: are they reacting because of differences in languages or differences in speakers?
– Magnetocardiagram (MCG)
This study used twenty-four women who were around eight months pregnant. The fetal MCG fits over the mother’s tummy and detects small magnetic fields. These fields surround electrical currents from the bodies of the mom and baby. It is more sensitive than ultrasound and detects heartbeats, breathing, and other movements.
For this study, a bilingual speaker made recordings in two different languages—English, with its dynamic rhythmic structure, and the more regular-paced Japanese.
The baby’s heartbeat didn’t change when researchers played a different English passage. But the MCG detected changes in the baby’s heartbeat when the Japanese recording where played. It indicates that babies can distinguish between other languages.
Isn’t it exciting to know that the language development of your baby starts even before birth?
2. Language development and memory
Your baby is so sensitive that any stimulation influences them. EEG monitoring of brainwave patterns shows that babies remember repeated sounds and it activates your baby’s memory. When you repeat sounds, your baby’s memory will help it to recognise it.
In this way, your baby learns repeated sounds. But can also recognise words and their variations. EEG monitoring shows that the neural signals for identifying sounds are visible as memory traces in the baby’s brain after birth.
3. Babies recognize their mother tongue
Researchers studied forty newborn infants (no older than 30 hours) in Tacoma and Stockholm, Sweden. They exposed them to vowel sounds in their mother tongue and other languages.
The researchers used a pacifier connected to a computer to study their reactions. If a baby sucks for a shorter or longer period, it indicates learning. They found that all babies sucked for different periods when they heard strange languages. It implies that they are familiar with their native language, which they heard in the womb before birth. It also shows that babies can differentiate between sounds even before birth.
4. Teaching your baby before birth
Your unborn baby uses many of its senses to learn about its environment at twenty-six weeks. You will feel movements as your baby responds to sounds, but especially to your voice and laughter. It is the first voice they’ll hear, and it gives them comfort. A slower heart rate shows it. As well as movements like thumb-sucking, face touching and stretching.
Babies find word patterns and nursery rhymes relaxing. They will respond even with gaps between hearing them or read by a different person. Your baby can even remember these word patterns and rhymes for a short period after birth!
|Interesting fact: From twenty weeks, twins will play with each other.|
5. What about hearing loss?
We all want our babies to be perfect! But every pregnancy carries with it a certain amount of risk. It includes the risk of hearing loss in your unborn baby.
All babies should have a hearing check as part of their post-birth screening. Your paediatrician should arrange a full hearing test if he suspects hearing loss before your baby is three months old.
Hearing loss causes:
Prolonged exposure to loud noise might cause hearing loss, even in your unborn baby. Although not yet proven, rather avoid noisy environments while pregnant.
In 25% of cases, non-genetic factors cause hearing loss. Such as different infections, but often only during later stages of life. The following conditions can result in hearing loss if the mother gets it during pregnancy:
· Toxoplasmosis (Cat-scratch disease)
The Toxoplasma gondii parasite can infect expecting mothers when they eat contaminated meat not cooked properly. This parasite also hides in infected cats’ waste, which is why pregnant mothers shouldn’t clean the cat’s litter box.
This parasite transfers to your unborn child during pregnancy. Called congenital toxoplasmosis, it poses a higher risk if it occurs during the third trimester. These babies may not show any symptoms at birth but it can cause hearing loss during the teenage or later years.
This bacterial infection appears as blisters and spread through contact with the skin and mucous membranes during intercourse. Syphilis passes from the mother to her unborn child and can result in sensorineural hearing loss. It means low discrimination scores that can affect both ears, as well as vestibular issues.
· Rubella (German Measles)
Rubella is a contagious viral infection. Mild most of the time, the symptoms are a fever and distinctive red rash. But it is a common cause of congenital deafness if the mother gets infected during pregnancy. The measles-mump-rubella (MMR) vaccine is effective in preventing this disease.
· Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
CMV is part of the herpes family, and once infected, your body will keep it for life. Healthy adults rarely experience any symptoms. If you develop a CMV infection during pregnancy, you can pass it to your baby, who will have the symptoms. The risk is higher if the condition occurs before the third trimester. It spreads through body fluids and has no cure. Doctors use medication to treat the symptoms only.
Most of the time, these babies will appear healthy at birth but often develop signs months or even years after birth. The most common of these is sensorineural hearing loss.
7. Tips for optimal language development (third trimester)
- Read a nursery rhyme, short story, or sing to your baby every day.
- Talk to your baby every day. What you say isn’t critical because your baby is getting used to the rhythm of language at this stage. It is also a great way to bond with your baby.
- If you are bilingual, talk to your baby in both languages.
- Expose your baby to different sounds, like singing, rattling, or other voices, and see how it reacts.
- Involve Dad and sibling/s by encouraging them to talk to the baby as well. But they will need to get close to your tummy for the baby to hear them.
Every baby is a miracle! And we can only stand amazed at how a baby develops between the moment of conception and birth. Mastering language is the most important skill your child needs, and now you can see that it already starts in the womb.
Which action steps can you put in place every day to give your unborn baby’s language development a head start?
Susan van der Walt is an avid reader of genres like crime, thrillers, adventure, and true stories. On Read or Rot she shares her favourite books and quotes with you. She also writes articles, book reviews and book recommendations. She lives in Alberton (South Africa) with her husband, Warrick, and fur baby, Pixie.