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Mom’s Voice Is "Special" To Newborn Babies

My husband, who saw the whole thing, said that our son was already screaming when he was born; the wail seemed to have originated in utero. As the cord was being clamped and he was being wiped down, I said, “It’s OK little boy, it’s OK.” And not only did he stop what had been one ceaseless, primal wail, he actually turned his head toward my face.

I’d never met him before but he seemed to already know I was someone of interest and importance.

Now a Canadian study shows that the language learning centers of a newborn’s brain are hardwired to spark up for mom’s voice, and mom’s voice alone. Twenty-four-hour-old babies were hooked up to brain imaging electrodes; various people talked around and to the baby and the results were analyzed. Scans showed activity when others spoke, but only when the mother talked did the part of the brain responsible for language learning buzz with activity.

Researchers concluded that, “the mother’s voice is special to babies.”

“When the mother spoke, the scans very clearly show reactions in the left-hemisphere of the brain, and in particular the language processing and motor skills circuit. Conversely, when the stranger spoke, the right-hemisphere of the brain reacted. The right-hemisphere is associated with voice recognition.”

This experiment involved familiar maternal voices speaking to the baby, and they still didn’t have the impact the mother had. There’s a word for the way a mother’s voice can soothe a baby; it’s called “Motherese,” and it’s been scientifically recognized as a real thing.

I’d be curious to know, however, more about dads and siblings. My daughter seemed immediately familiar with the sometimes gentle, sometimes loud, high-pitched voice of her three-year-old brother from the moment she was born. He was making lots of noise at uterus level for the entire 40 weeks she was in there, after all. And his was one of the very first voices she heard after birth.

I’d also be interested to know how long this mom-only effect lasts. There’s a privileging of the mother that seems entirely appropriate during the process of pregnancy, birth and immediate newborn period but sometimes it bleeds into an “only mom can help” attitude that lasts far too long. Babies are so responsive and so capable of tuning into patterns, especially when they are associated with comfort, food and safety.

In any event, it’s certainly no surprise and somewhat reassuring to learn that mother and baby have already met and made some connections well before birth.

photo: NataPics/Flickr

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