A Peek into Fetal Memory

Do you remember Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat? You’ll be surprised to learn who else remembers it.

Pregnant mothers the world over can often be found talking or singing to their babies in the womb. But as tender as those moments may be, is anyone besides Mom and Dad actually remembering them? New research says yes.

A team of medical researchers in the Netherlands combined sonogram technology with sound and vibration stimulation to discover that 30-week-old fetuses demonstrate short-term memory. By 34 weeks, these babies in utero are able to store and retrieve that information up to four weeks later, according to the study published in the medical journal Child Development.

This research follows on the heels of similar studies conducted to determine if a fetus can remember its mother’s voice. One such study had mothers read Dr. Seuss’ famous Cat in the Hat twice a day to their babies six weeks before birth.

Three days after birth, scientists were able to determine that not only did the babies prefer the sound of their own mother’s voice, they also preferred the sound of the story they had heard in utero to a new story.

Still other studies have found that fetuses exposed to theme songs or other music tend to show recognition of those same songs shortly after birth. Other studies show that newborns prefer the sound of the mother’s native tongue to other languages.

The life of twins has also opened some unexpected vistas in the exploration of learning and memory in the womb. In the National Geographic special In the Womb: Twins, Triplets, and Quads , a twin brother and sister were spotted through ultrasound technology playing cheek-to-cheek on either side of the placenta. A year after birth, their favorite game was to take positions on opposite sides of a curtain, laughing and giggling as they touched and played through the divider.

In another case of twins, one baby showed more aggressive behavior in utero. Kicking, pushing, and hitting the other, who would retreat to the far side of the womb. Four years later, whenever a fight breaks out between the twins, the quieter one still retreats to his room and closes the door. function fbs_click() {u=location.href.substring(0,location.href.lastIndexOf(‘/’));t=document.title;window.open(‘http://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u=’+encodeURIComponent(u)+’&t=’+encodeURIComponent(t),’sharer’,’toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436′);return false;}

Negative emotional states of the mother may also tell us something about learning and cognition in utero. One Australian study found the babies of pregnant mothers watching a 20-minute video of a disturbing Hollywood movie also experienced emotional upset. When three months after birth, the infants were briefly shown clips of the same film, they showed recognition of prior exposure.

From thumb sucking, to cry-like behavior, to dreaming, and smiling, new four-dimensional ultrasound technology has shown us more than we ever imagined possible about human life in the womb. Now as studies continue to unfold the mysteries of life in the womb, discoveries in learning and memory are changing the way many see the fetus. These are stunning reminders of the capabilities of the unborn—precious souls who are so often denied their right to life.

Share these findings with those you know, and if they support abortion, encourage them to revisit the issue. Each day science shows us more and more to confirm what we already know—that the unborn are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

That’s something all of us should remember.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • c-kingsley

    We are expecting a baby that they tell us will not survive after birth. Research like this affirms to us the value of the time we have with this little one. We’ll be trying to bring him alive to the sacraments, though he may have to accept baptism by desire.

  • Claire

    I’m so sorry to hear this, c-kingsley. I will keep you in prayer.

  • elkabrikir


    my prayers are with your family. What a blessing that you have been given a child to love and a child to “pray you home” like the Biblical Joseph.

    Letters to Gabriel is a book written by Karen Santorum (former Sen Rick Santorum’s wife) about the prenatal loss of their son Gabriel. It is beautifully written and reaffirms the beautiful gift of life, regardless of how much time we have to love each other in this world.


  • c-kingsley

    I’m in the middle of “Letters to Gabriel.”