The Earliest Fetal Memory?

Dutch doctors say the unborn may have memories by the 30th week of pregnancy.

July 14, 2009, 5:15 PM

July 15, 2009— -- Like any prospective mom, as 21-year-old Angela Morton goes through her first pregnancy the family stories of her own baby years begin to emerge -- including her mother's trick of calming her with Aerosmith's 1988 song "Angel" anytime she was a fussing as an infant.

"That was the song for me I guess," said Morton. "But I've never even heard it since I was a baby."

Morton's mother may have discovered a secret infant-soothing property in Steven Tyler's rock ballads. Or, more likely, she was was playing on an aspect of fetal memory outlined by researchers in Tuesday's issue of the journal Child Development.

In a study of 100 of pregnant women in the Netherlands, researchers say they found evidence that fetuses have short-term memory of sounds by the 30th week of pregnancy, and develop a long-term memory of sound after that.

The researchers documented the memory by watching fetal movements with ultrasound while they played "vibroacoustic" sound to the growing baby. Five of the fetuses in the study did not move in reaction to the sound and were eliminated from the study.

But among the fetuses who did move, researchers repeated the sound until the fetus "habituated" to it and no longer reacted. Doctors let some time pass and then tested the memory of the fetus by playing the sound in intervals to see if the fetus "remembered" or recognized the sound and did not react.

The study found that by 30 weeks of age, a fetus could "remember" a sound for 10 minutes. By the 34th week a fetus may be able to "remember" the sound for four weeks.

Morton thought that same sort of memory could have been why she was calmed by Steven Tyler as an infant.

"She [Morton's mother] used to go play it when she pregnant and sing along… then when I was fussy as a baby she used to play it and I calmed down," she said.

Right now Morton mostly plays Christian rock and The Beatles for her baby boy Christian, who is due in November. She says she's thinking about expanding the music collection for her baby in case there is more to this research.

Recognizing Memory in the Womb

While researchers have long documented "habituation" of the fetus -- an experiment with car horns and pregnant women in the 1920s was the first to do so -- child development specialists might not all agree that this is a form of memory as everyday people think of it.

"In this case, they appear to be study a very primitive type of memory called habituation or sensitization which is the tendency of animals to stop responding to a repeated stimulus," said Mark Strauss, autism researcher and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh wrote in an e-mail to

"It is already known that a fetus will habituate to a stimulus. Indeed, even just a single muscle cell that is stimulated by an electrical stimulus will stop contracting, indicating a type of memory," said Strauss.

But Strauss was intrigued that the fetal memory could last that either 10 minutes, or even four weeks, as the researchers suggested.

"What is critically important to recognize, however, is that these memories are not conscious or introspective voluntary memories they way an older child or adult thinks about past experiences," said Strauss. "They are very different and, indeed, involve lower areas of the brain that are very different from high-level brain area."

But that difference only piques the interest of some neurologists who are looking at how memories form in the human brain from the first moments in life through the later stages of dementia.

"It's interesting to say that babies have some memory, some intake of things, even if they're born premature. There's a lot of movement towards making intensive care units friendlier, controlling noise for example, for premature babies," said Dr. Paul Graham Fisher, a professor of neurology at Stanford University.

"Early kids can lie down memories, but what's going to be the really cool thing is how do they do it," he said. "How do stem cells, the very early cells in the brain, encrypt memory in the brain?"

Keeping the Peace in the Womb

While researchers strive to figure out the mechanics of memory, child development experts say studies like these may encourage parents to keep the earliest of environments in mind.

"Beyond ensuring healthy nutrition, research of this type, along with the work of others regarding infant memory should help us understand the importance of a safe, relatively low stress environment during this very sensitive period of development," said Rahil Briggs, a pediatric psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

"It really is as if there is a recorder going on in there from the beginning, and we've got to be careful about what it's recording," she said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events