Prenatal learning and all that your newborn knows

Newborn babies are competent beings.

For a long time, newborn babies were considered a "tabula rasa" (i.e., blank slate) on which parents and the environment wrote all the rules for their child’s development. This idea was made famous by philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and has since being quite successful. Behavioural psychologists took this particularly seriously. Behaviourist John Watson wrote in 1930, “give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” According to this school of thought, how a person turns out is entirely dependent on experience (i.e., nurture), while genetics (i.e., nature) has no role to play.


Of course, we don't think that way anymore. Any parent of two children knows that there is something in their babies' little brains that makes each child respond to certain things in certain ways. One baby likes the sound of the dishwasher, while the same sound makes her brother go hysterical. One toddler won't go anywhere without a kiss and a cuddle, while his sister forgets to say goodbye when she is dropped off at nursery. One child adores listening to stories while her sister only thinks about building things.


In the video linked below (watch the first two minutes and last five minutes if you do not have time for more), the controversial psychologist Stephen Pinker offers a very thought-provoking and somewhat sobering take on how much of a person’s personality and behaviour is due to the environment (parenting, for instance) and how much is due to genetic predisposition (a.k.a. the nature-nurture debate).

Though we now know that babies do not come into the world as a blank-slate, many still cannot help imagining a baby's experience as "blooming, buzzing confusion" (borrowing a very catchy phrase of the 1842-born philosopher and psychologist, William James). Parents are impatient for their baby to grow up and begin "making sense," "doing something" and “interacting.”


Fair enough. It is true that newborns might seem fairly passive. If you look at a small baby lying in her cot, nothing much seems to be happening. But look again.

Learn what to look for. Learn to read the signs. Look closer. (More on how to do this here.)

A lot is happening. An awful lot is going on in that little brain. Much more than is going on in yours or mine, or even Stephen Hawking's (as we have discussed in a previous blog post). This is not determined by genetic predispositions alone, but also by learning. Yes, your newborn baby has already learned a lot during her time in the womb! Some of the sensations and emotional experiences she has been exposed to during her pre-natal life have been stored in her little brain and inform the way she interacts with her environment today.


Foetuses learn from sensations

Studies on prenatal learning and foetal memory show that babies learn from their senses while they are in the womb. They listen to and recognise sounds, and they get bored of them after a few repetitions (the technical term is habituated, more here). You can only get bored with an experience if you can remember you have already been through it, right?


Once they are out of the womb, babies are not bored with well-known stimuli anymore. It might be that familiar stimuli provide some comfort in the new and potentially threatening outside world. This is probably why newborn babies prefer their mother's language--the only one they have heard from the inside for the previous nine months--to any other language. They particularly enjoy listening to a musical sequence that has been repeatedly played to them in the last weeks of pregnancy. They are particularly keen on flavours of food their mother has regularly eaten during pregnancy. They'd pick their mother's smell over any perfume (more on this here).


The learning is not only shown in preferences, but also in spontaneous behaviour. For instance, did you know that babies actually cry in an accent? Consistently with the melodic characteristics of the German vs. French language, French newborns tend to cry with rising melody patterns, whereas German newborns produce more falling melody patterns (more here).

Foetuses learn from experiences.

Babies seem to be able to learn even from the mother's one-off experiences. There is a lot of evidence that this is true when it comes to trauma. A heartbreaking but poignant study was conducted after the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. Seventeen hundred women were exposed to the attacks, and many developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, more on the condition here). It was shown that mothers who developed PTSD passed on to their babies a vulnerability to develop the same disorder. This means that what a child has experienced in utero affects the way she responds to the environment once she is born. As Annie Murphie suggests in the video linked below, this might be a very adaptive way of preparing the baby for the world into which she will be born (skip to minute 14 if you are short on time).

In summary, it is safe to say that a baby's brain is anything but a "tabula rasa.” Newborn perception is anything but "blooming, buzzing confusion." Your little one's behaviour is anything but random or passive. Try to look closer, listen more carefully and pay attention to the small details. Look out for subtle signs of recognition and preference. It will revolutionise your life. All of a sudden, you will find yourself sharing your life with a very competent being. Baby is already a fantastic person who can tell you so much about what she likes, and this can help you solve problems together.


Enjoy discovering the wonders she is telling you about!


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