CogniFit's Science blog: Be Careful, Your Baby Is Listening

Be Careful, Your Baby Is Listening

I've always taken with disbelief the idea that the babies actually can hear and understand their parents before they are born, or even in their sleep.

Although parents want to believe that the baby kicks their mom because they've heard dad's voice, the distance from the wishful thinking to the reality seems big.

Well... maybe not!

In a recent study, researchers at the King's College London have investigated how babies' brains respond to sounds, when they slept. They have used a functional MRI scanner, quiet enough to prevent them from waking. The 21 babies in this research were aged between 3 and 7.

This research has identified very interesting insights. They found for instance by comparing babies' responses to non-verbal communication, that different regions of the babies’ brains responded strongly to the different stimuli, in a similar way to what happens to awaken adults' brains. On top of this, the reaction to the human vocalizations (cry, laugh, or neutral) has revealed an important activity in regions of the brain such as the middle temporal gyri, right lingual gyrus and medial frontal gyri, with patterns that again are identifiable when adults are awaken and listening to such sounds.

The initial conclusions indicate thus that a sleeping baby, as young as 3 months' old, has similar brain processing activities and reactions as an awaken adult. This would mean that my initial disbelief is indeed proven wrong.

However, these recent findings don't mean that the mystery is solved. The reason for sleeping babies to react to sounds around them remains largely unknown. The hypotheses could be that it is because they are hard-wired to be alert, or simply that certain brain regions are specialized very early in the babies' lives. It is even speculated that the babies' may learn to distinguish those sounds while still in the womb (and this hypothesis will certainly make many moms and dads-to-be extremely happy!)

This research opens new opportunities to understand how social communication and processing emotional speech develops in autism, and especially understand what happens before autism develops. This would potentially allow the identification of protective factors in at-risk of autism children that could prevent the development of this problem.

The bottom line for the majority of the young parents is however another one. Next time you’ll think of arguing when the baby is asleep, think twice before doing so! Their brain is as alert and listing to to your signals as when you are awake.