A new study finds unborn children recognize and prefer their mother’s voice while still in the womb.

Canadian and Chinese researchers studying infant development released key findings this month suggesting babies’ brains learn speech patterns and lay the groundwork for language acquisition while still in the womb, ABC News reports.

“Before birth, the brain is being set up to learn language,” Barbara Kisilevsky, a nursing professor at Queens University in Ontario, told ABC News. Kisilevsky conducted the research with a team of psychologists from Queens and obstetricians in Hangzhou, China.

According to a Queens University press release, research had already established newborn infants’ preference for their mother’s voice, but this latest finding demonstrates unborn babies also prefer their mother’s voice to unfamiliar female voices.

Since the same results were achieved in Canada as in China, researchers determined the findings were universal and not culturally based.

“It’s good to know that in both cultures, we got the same results,” Kisilevsky said.

Kisilevsky and researchers at Zhejiang University tested 60 women in the final stage of pregnancy. The mothers were tape-recorded as they read a poem out loud. Half the babies then heard a 2-minute recording of their own mother. The other half heard an unfamiliar mother’s voice.

Researchers found that the babies responded to their own mother’s voice with heart-rate acceleration and to an unfamiliar female voice with heart-rate deceleration.

Deceleration of the heart rate is “an attention mechanism,” Kisilevsky told ABC News. The heartbeat of babies who heard an unfamiliar voice slowed down, she continued, because they were paying close attention to a voice they did not recognize.

“These results tell us that the fetuses heard and responded to both voices and that there was sustained attention to both voices,” noted Kisilevsky. “But, because they responded differently to the two voices, we know they had to recognize their own mother’s voice.”

Kisilevsky’s team is now investigating unborn children’s response to the father’s voice and the ability of unborn babies to differentiate between English and Mandarin.

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