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Friday, 29 September, 2000, 02:20 GMT 03:20 UK
Babies 'can learn' in the womb
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The foetuses were tested towards the end of pregnancy
Babies are able to learn and remember while still in the womb, according to a study.

Doctors in the Netherlands used sound to determine if an unborn baby could react, respond to and recognise a specific noise.

They found that while a foetus moved when they first heard the sound, they later became used to it and did not react.

According to the doctors, this showed the foetuses were able to remember the sound and "learn" it was harmless.


"Foetuses have a short term memory of at least 10 minutes and a long-term memory of at least 24 hours"

Dr Cathelijne van Heteren, University Hospital Maastricht

The doctors carried out a study on 25 unborn babies between 37 and 40 weeks old.

They applied an acoustic sound to the womb and directed it above the unborn babies leg. Each of the foetuses reacted.

They determined whether the unborn baby had "learnt" not to react to the sound if their body no longer moved, after four consecutive sounds.

They applied consecutive sounds at three different intervals; initially, 10 minutes later and 24 hours later.

'Became used to sound'

Six of the foetuses were excluded from the study because of irregular movements in response to the sound.

The remaining babies all "became used to" or habituated to the sound and did not react soon after it was initially applied.

They stopped reacting to the sound more quickly when it was reapplied after 10 minutes and similarly 24 hours later.

Dr Cathelijne van Heteren from University Hospital Maastricht said the study showed foetuses had both short and long-term memories.

"Compared with the initial habituation test, foetuses not only habituated more rapidly 10 minutes later but also after 24 hours.

"We therefore conclude that foetuses have a short term memory of at least 10 minutes and a long-term memory of at least 24 hours."

She added: "Foetuses are able to memorise the stimuli in utero, although they may need more than one stimulus to establish recognition."

In the past, it was thought that babies were born without a functional memory.

Previous studies suggested that they could remember but these were only undertaken after the baby was born.

This is one of the first studies to examine babies before they are born and to suggest that they can remember and learn.

The study is published in the medical journal The Lancet.

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See also:

29 Aug 00 | Health
'Abortion causes foetal pain'
02 Aug 00 | Health
Jabs in the womb for babies?
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