Nov. 5, 2009 -- Think newborns just eat, sleep and wail the same way across the world? That's not so, according to a new study which found that babies cry with an accent within the first week of life.
By recording cries of 60 babies born to French or German parents, researchers discovered that babies cry with the same "prosody" or melody used in their native language by the second day of life.
French newborns in the study ended their cries with a lilt at the end typically heard in French. German babies, however, started their cries intensely and dropped off at the end -- much like the emphasis their German parents put in a sentence, according to a study published Thursday in Current Biology.
Experts in child development say the most exciting part of this discovery is not that infants recognize the melody of their language, but that the newborns may have the ability to use what they heard in the womb to then control their cries.
Were You Learning in the Womb?
"I think we've always known that fetuses hear what's in the room," said Dr. Ari Brown, author of Baby 411, and a practicing pediatrician in Austin, Texas. "As newborns they do recognize their mother's voices, and they ignore the dog barking because they've been hearing the dog barking three months before they were born."
Exactly what fetuses were learning from these noises is still mostly a mystery to doctors. A small study this spring showed evidence that by the 30th week of pregnancy fetuses had "short-term memory" of loud sounds -- if they recognized a sound was made before, the fetuses would not react to it.
The study published in Current Biology might be a clue that infants are doing more than recognizing the sounds and voices, but absorbing enough detail to mimic them.
"Each language is characterized by very specific musical elements in the form of its prosody, that is, its intonation system and constituent rhythm," said Kathleen Wermke, co-author of the study and a researcher at the Center for Pre-speech Development and Developmental Disorders, at the University of Wurzburg in Germany.
"Based on prosody alone, human adults and even newborns are able to distinguish different languages," she said.
But Wermke said actually mimicking the prosody of a language is "much more demanding" because it requires coordination between the muscles in the voice box and controlled breathing.
Communicating From Day One?
Dr. Rahil Briggs, a child psychologist, was also surprised by the newborns' control over their voice, but would not go as far as to say that the infant had "learned" the language.
"Learning might be too strong of a word, but certainly mimicking," said Briggs, who is a director of the Healthy Steps Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
Still, Briggs thinks the news should be important for researchers studying newborns, and a hint that parents should be concerned about their newborn's environment.
What Should Parents Do?
"Be aware of the environment you're placing that infant in, whether it's about stress or yelling," said Briggs.
"I think that the state of the science is such that were only going to learn more and more about how incredibly active these early infant and even fetal brains are," she continued. "Although they can't tell us what they're learning and what they remember and taking in at this moment, we know that it really is getting lodged in their brain."