When there is a lot of machine noise in the neonatal hospital environment, babies will learn those sounds, possibly at the expense of speech sounds. “This may contribute to later language learning problems,” says Huotilainen.
Huotilainen is currently studying prematurely born babies receiving “kangaroo care” (worn by mothers in pouches) in groups that hear silence, speech, or soft lullabies, to see if certain environments might help them to develop their language faster.
Huotilainen’s former graduate student Eino Partanen, collaborator on the prenatally-learned music study, is also hoping to find out how, what and when we learn sounds, “and what kinds of developmental deficits we can start to ameliorate in early infancy,” he says.
But purposely modifying the sounds a developing foetus hears is something Huotilainen is cautious about. She is sceptical of the value of “foetal stimulators”: devices marketed to mothers that play music directly to their unborn babies, some attached on the belly, others through vaginal loudspeakers. “I’m not at all sure if it’s a good idea to use those,” she says.