Communication Before Language

Babies in the womb who have normal hearing and a normally stimulating environment, send and receive messages without benefit of the words, syllables and phrases that begin appearing at one or two years of age.  Their daily experiences of communication are punctuated by self-initiated and reactive movements which express needs, interests, and feelings.  This mode of communication continues, not only in utero, but after birth and throughout their whole life – this is an amazing universal human language.

Based on the early development of the senses in the womb, a foetus is in constant dialog with the surrounding environment.  Baby body talk includes various senses:  responding to tastes and odours by abrupt behaviour changes reflecting pleasure or displeasure, reacting against strong light, noise, pressure, or pain by gestures of defense or escape and  reacting to different types of music by either wild kicking or by calming down to listen or rest.

It has been observed through ultrasound observations in the womb that fetuses can show strong emotion.  During amniocentesis, between 16-20 weeks fetuses have revealed fearful reactions including extreme fluctuations in heart rate and withdrawal from normal activity for a period of hours or even days.

The ability to signal distress by crying is a familiar aspect of infant behaviour.  Cries can be compelling.  Babies need no lessons in how to cry, although adults need lessons in interpreting this crying.  Technical measurements have shown that cries contain much information about disease, malnutrition, and genetic defects.  Babies are sensitive to each other’s cries and discriminate between animal, human and electronic cry sounds.  They respond most strongly to cries of babies their own age.

The emotional turmoil which provokes crying already exist in the womb and may be heard if air reaches the area around the foetal larynx.  This intrauterine crying is termed “vagitus uterinus” (literally, squalling in the womb) and is well documented in medical literature both ancient and modern.  Over one hundred cases have been reported.

At birth, newborns clearly communicate their feelings about what is happening to them by contortions of the face, writhing movements of the torso, flailing movements of arms and legs, by changing colour to angry red, dangerous blue or paleness, or by reassuring coos and gurgles.  They express anger with clenched fists or relaxed gestures, smiling and conveying pleasure.

Babies begin learning language in the womb.  An early discovery using acoustic spectrography revealed that the first cry of a 900 gram baby already contained intonations, rhythms and other speech features that could be matched with the mother’s voice spectrograph.  This proved that by about 26 weeks of gestation, this baby had already acquired certain features of its ‘mother tongue’.

More recent studies reveal unexpected learning of story passages and child rhymes in utero – an amazing demonstration of early language perception and learning.  Language studies have demonstrated that babies perceive the smallest units of sound – the phonemes – even better than adults do for about the first year of life.  They have superior lip-reading skills and are quick to detect which sound track matches the talking faces they are watching.  They also quickly select the appropriate emotional sound track for the faces they are watching.  In addition to these lip-reading skills, both premature and full-term babies read faces so well that they can immediately imitate a wide open mouth, a protruding tongue, or mimic expressions of happiness, sadness or surprise – showing superb communication skills.

Prenates and newborns arrive in this world equipped with universal human languages made possible by the voluntary movement which begins around ten weeks gestational age.  Early expressive movement is facilitated by a spectrum of developing senses including at least touch, thermal experiences, taste, odour, hearing, licking, sucking and even vision.  The communication repertoire includes verbal and non-verbal expressions, body colour, emotional behaviours, crying, withdrawal, hand gestures, a range of facial statements, instant imitation and lip-reading.  Therefore, all humans are prepared to send and receive messages and to dialog with parents long before the development of formal language. – Adapted from ‘Life Before Birth’ by David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.