Communication Before Language

Babies in the womb who have normal hearing and a normally stimulating environment are prepared to send and receive messages without benefit of the words, syllables, and phrases that begin appearing in a year or two after birth. 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 the life span; it is truly a universal human language.

Based on the early development of the senses in the womb, a fetus remains in constant dialog with the surrounding environment (See in this column, The Fetal Senses). Baby body talk includes various senses: responding to tastes and odors by abrupt behavior changes reflecting pleasure or displeasure; reacting against strong light, noise, pressure, or pain by gestures of defense or escape; and reacting to differentg types of music by either wild kicking or by calming down to listen or rest. We should not argue with baby body language!

Ultrasound observations of behavior in the womb reveal that fetuses can show strong emotion. Observations made between 16 and 20 weeks of gestation during the procedure of amniocentesis have revealed fearful reactions including extreme fluctuations in heart rate and withdrawal from normal activity for a period of hours or even days. With increasing use of amniocentesis, women and doctors have witnessed aggressive actions toward the needle itself as babies attack the needle barrel from the side! Similarly, observation of twins via ultrasound have uncovered body language including holding hands, kissing, playing, kicking and hitting each other. This communication before birth was not predicted in psychology and medicine.

The ability to signal distress by crying is a familiar aspect of infant behavior. 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 fetal 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, body talk is eloquent whether asserting anger and rage in clenched fists or in relaxed gestures--and even smiles--conveying pleasure. 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 color to angry red, dangerous blue or paleness, or by reassuring coos and gurgles. These obvious skills of communication displayed by both prenates and newborns flow from impressive skills of perception.

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--a precocious demonstration of early language perception and learning. After birth, babies show more interest in listening to an adult speaking in the mother tongue rather than in a different language. 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. Superior lip-reading skills are seen when babies quickly 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--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, odor, hearing, licking, sucking, and even vision. The communication repertoire includes verbal and non-verbal expressions, body color, emotional behaviors, crying, withdrawal, hand gestures, a range of facial statements, instant imitation, and lip-reading. Thus, all humans are prepared to send and receive messages and to dialog with parents long before the development of formal language.