Newborn cognitive development: What are babies thinking and learning?

What do newborns think about? 

During the first few weeks after birth, it might seem that your baby does little more than sleep, cry, and feed. But research tells us that there is much more going on. The newborn brain is busy processing information, searching for patterns, and learning. 

Here’s a fascinating look at newborn cognitive development, covering five major topics:

  • how newborns can recognize your voice (and certain music, too);
  • what newborns are learning about language;
  • the special interest that babies show in biological motion and faces;
  • newborn cognitive development and spatial skills; and
  • evidence that newborns learn during sleep.

For additional information about the mind of your newborn, see my guide to newborn sensory perception, as well the many Parenting Science articles mentioned below.

newborn very attentive to  and fascinated by mother who is talking and touching baby

1. Even before birth, babies have begun paying attention to sound. And newborns can recognize familiar voices and tunes!

Late in gestation, babies are already paying attention to the sounds they hear. How do we know? Ultrasound.

In a number of studies, researchers have used ultrasound to see how babies respond when they hear sounds. For instance, when infants hear their parents talking, they become temporarily “quiet,” slowing down their body movements for several seconds (e.g., Voegtline et al 2013; Marx and Nagy 2015).

Babies may also experience brief changes in heart rate, consistent with the idea that they are attending to, or processing, the sounds they hear (Lee and Kisilevsky 2014; Kisilevsky and Hains 2011).

So babies act as if they are listening. Do they learn anything? Yes.

Newborns can recognize their mothers’ voices.

In experiments conducted just 12 hours after birth, researchers presented babies with audio playbacks of the same Doctor Seuss story. But each baby heard two versions of the story: One narrated by a female stranger, the other narrated by the infant’s own mother.

Could the babies tell these voices apart? Did they have any preferences?

The researchers wanted to know, so they gave babies the power to start and stop the audio playbacks.

Each infant was given a pacifier (or “dummy”) to suck on, and if a baby wanted to continue hearing a voice, the baby needed merely to keep sucking.

To stop a story, babies had to pause sucking for two seconds or more.

As you might expect, it took the babies a few minutes to figure this out, but once they did, they showed a clear preference: They spent more time listening to mother (DeCasper and Fifer 1980).

Newborns can recognize melodies, too.

In one study, researchers asked pregnant women to listen to recordings of the song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” multiple times each day.

The women played the music back at a volume comparable to someone singing about three feet away from their bellies, and the average baby heard the melody about 170 times before birth.

Shortly after childbirth, the researchers played “Twinkle, Twinkle” to the babies once more, and measured electrical activity in the newborns’ brains.

In addition, the researchers tested a control group — newborns who hadn’t been subjected to prenatal music sessions. 

The results? The “Twinkle, Twinkle” babies showed neural signs of being familiar with the tune. The control group babies did not (Partanen et al 2014).

It’s consistent with previous observational research — research indicating that newborns can recognize the theme songs of their mothers’ favorite television programs (Hepper 1991). 

2. Newborns are also learning about language.

A gestating infant might overhear a lot of speech during the latter stages of pregnancy. After birth, the baby hears even more language spoken. So what, if anything, does a newborn know about language? More than you might think.

Newborns can tell the difference between their mother’s native language and a foreign tongue.

In a study using the pacifier technique, Christine Moon and her colleagues presented 80 newborns with recordings of different vowel sounds.

Half of the babies were living in Sweden, and came from households that spoke Swedish only. The other half were American infants from homes that spoke English only.

All the newborns – who were approximately 33 hours hold – heard playbacks of vowel sounds from two languages: Swedish and English. And once again, babies could control what they heard by sucking on a pacifier. If a baby kept sucking, he would continue to hear the same vowel sound repeated over and over again. If a baby stopped sucking, the playback would move onto a new vowel sound.

In this way, the researchers could determine if the babies distinguished between vowel sounds. By repeated sucking, a baby was in effect saying “Hmm, that’s interesting. Let me hear that one again.”

When Moon and her team analyzed the results, they found that babies in both countries sucked on their pacifiers more when they heard foreign vowel sounds. It was as if the babies noticed something unusual and wanted to investigate. Newborns seemed motivated to expose themselves to new language data.

Newborns can pick out individual words from a stream of speech. 

On the written page, it’s easy to identify individual words. They are separated by physical space. But spoken language is different. It’s often a continuous flow of sound, with no obvious markers between words.

So anyone attempting to learn a new language faces a big challenge. Where does one word end, and another begin?

Amazingly, it appears that babies have already begun working on this problem within a few days of birth.

In a recent study using brain imaging technology, researchers found that 3-day-old babies could pick out individual words from a stream of continuous speech (Flo et al 2019).

How did the babies do it? The researchers think two methods are likely.

First, newborns are probably relying on the prosodic, musical nature of speech. We sometimes highlight words with changes of tone, for example. Newborns seem to use this as a cue for detecting word boundaries.

Second, it appears that newborns are also detecting statistical associations — tracking common patterns in the way that a language combines sounds to make words. For instance, with enough data, a baby listening to English might notice that most words end in consonants.

So newborns aren’t just letting language wash over them. Their brains are trying to make sense of it. And they do something else that helps them learn…

Newborns pay special attention when we speak to them in the slow, repetitive, melodic register known as “infant-directed speech.”

It happens to parents all over the world: We automatically change our speech patterns when we address a baby.

Experiments show that babies actively prefer to be addressed this distinctive way, and for good reason. It’s harder to make sense of speech when it’s fast and monotone. When we speak more musically — varying our pitch — it grabs a newborn’s attention, and helps the baby understand our emotions. When we slow down and repeat key words, it helps babies crack the code. 

You can read more about infant directed speech in my articles,

3. Newborns are busy decoding the visual world.

squinting newborn gazes at mother and touches her face

As I explain in my article about the newborn senses, young babies can’t see very well. Their vision is blurry, and they haven’t yet developed good depth perception. 

But newborns are nevertheless very interested in the sights around them — particularly in sights that suggest biological movement. 

For instance, if you show newborns a swarm of moving points of light, their attention depends on how the points move.

Make each point jiggle around in its own, random way, and babies are less interested. Make all the points move together in the same direction (what scientists call “point-light biological motion”), and newborns really take notice (Bidet-Ildei et al 2014).

It seems an effective rule of thumb for identifying living creatures: Pay attention to the stuff that moves as a unit.

It’s also clear that newborn babies pay special attention to faces. And they can quickly learn to tell one face from another.

In one experiment, newborn babies were capable of recognizing a specific face after just 90 seconds of looking (Coulon et al 2011)!

Do newborns recognize their parents’ faces? You bet. Learn more about this and other social feats in my article, “The social world of newborns.”

4. Newborns show remarkable spatial abilities: If I touch it, I know what it looks like.

Here’s something about newborn cognitive development that scientists can’t yet explain: Newborns can use their sense to touch to figure out what an unseen object looks like.

To see what I mean, consider this experimental procedure, devised by Arlette Streri and her colleagues.

  1. Put a three-dimensional shape in a newborn’s hand, taking care to make sure the baby can’t see it. 
  2. When the baby drops the object, place it back in the infant’s hand. Repeat several times so that the baby has plenty of opportunity to become familiar with the way the object feels.
  3. Once the baby is familiar with tactile properties of the object, test the baby for visual recognition: Show the baby two objects — only one of which is a match for the object that the baby held. Then measure how much time the baby spends looking at each object. 

When Streri and her colleagues did this, they found that newborns would look longer at the shape they hadn’t touched before, as if they were already familiar with it (and therefore less interested).

Moreover, newborns showed this preference despite the fact that the visual test stimuli were much larger versions of the objects they actually held. So newborns hadn’t become familiar merely with the specific objects they’ve handled. They’d become familiar with their shapes – in the abstract.

Similar experiments show that newborns can anticipate what different textures will look like. If they handle an (unseen) object with a bumpy texture, they later act as if they are familiar with the visual appearance of that texture.

So somehow, without practice, the newborn brain knows how to translate tactile information into visual information. As the authors of these studies conclude, “newborns are able to transfer shape information from touch to vision before they have had the opportunity to learn the pairing between the visual and the tactile experiences” (Streri et al 2013).

5. Newborns can learn during sleep!

We acknowledged at the beginning of this article that newborns spend most of their time sleeping. But the newborn brain doesn’t shut down during a snooze. On the contrary, newborn babies can learn from the sounds and physical sensations they experience while they are dozing.

For example, researchers have tried blowing puffs of air onto the eyelids of sleeping newborns. It makes the babies’ facial muscles twitch, but what’s interesting is that these babies can learn to anticipate.

Before each puff of air, the researchers play a brief auditory tone. And, after repeating trials, the newborns begin to twitch in response to the tone itself (Fifer et al 2010).

This indicates that newborns are processing information about their sleep environment, which makes sense if you consider that human babies evolved as co-sleepers.

In societies around the world, babies have slept on the ground with their mothers — within arm’s reach. Babies and mothers have needed to coordinate their movements for breastfeeding, safety, and temperature regulation. So being able to notice and respond to sounds during sleep would be helpful.

But what about other sorts of learning — like learning about language? Do sleeping newborns hear us when we speak? Do their brains process the information?

Once again, the answer is yes. For instance, experiments indicate that newborns can learn to discriminate between different vowel sounds while they are sleeping (Cheour et al 2002). 

More about cognitive development in newborns and older babies

As noted above, my article, “The social world of newborns” reviews more fascinating evidence about your baby’s abilities. In addition, you can learn about other aspects of infant cognitive development from these Parenting Science articles:

References: Newborn cognitive development

Bidet-Ildei C, Kitromilides E, Orliaguet JP, Pavlova M, Gentaz E. 2014. Preference for point-light human biological motion in newborns: contribution of translational displacement. Dev Psychol. 50(1):113-20.

Cheour M, Martynova O, Näätänen R, Erkkola R, Sillanpää M, Kero P, Raz A, Kaipio ML, Hiltunen J, Aaltonen O, Savela J, Hämäläinen H. 2002. Speech sounds learned by sleeping newborns. Nature. 415(6872):599-600.

Coubart A, Izard V, Spelke ES, Marie J, Streri A. 2014. Dissociation between small and large numerosities in newborn infants. Dev Sci. 17: 11–22.

Coulon M, Guellai B, Streri A. 2011. Recognition of unfamiliar talking faces at birth. Int. J. Behav. Dev. 35:282–287.

DeCasper AJ and Fifer WP. 1980. Of human bonding: newborns prefer their mothers’ voices. Science. 208(4448):1174-6.

Fifer WP, Byrd DL, Kaku M, Eigsti IM, Isler JR, Grose-Fifer J, Tarullo AR, Balsam PD. 2010. Newborn infants learn during sleep. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 107(22):10320-3.

Fló A, Brusini P, Macagno F, Nespor M, Mehler J, Ferry AL. 2019. Newborns are sensitive to multiple cues for word segmentation in continuous speech. Dev Sci. 22(4):e12802.

Guellaï B, Streri A, Chopin A, Rider D, Kitamura C. 2016. Newborns’ sensitivity to the visual aspects of infant-directed speech: Evidence from point-line displays of talking faces. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 42(9):1275-81 2016.

Hepper PG. 1991. An Examination of Fetal Learning Before and After Birth. Irish Journal of Psychology. 12: 95-107.

Kisilevsky BS and Hains SM. 2011. Onset and maturation of fetal heart rate response to the mother’s voice over late gestation. Dev Sci. 14(2):214-23.

Lee GY and Kisilevsky BS. 2014. Fetuses respond to father’s voice but prefer mother’s voice after birth. Dev Psychobiol. 2014 Jan;56(1):1-11.

Mampe B, Friederici AD, Christophe A, Wermke K. 2009. Newborns’ cry melody is shaped by their native language. Curr Biol. 19(23):1994-7. 

Moon C,  Lagercrantz H, Kuhl PK. 2013. Language experienced in utero affects vowel perception after birth: a two-country study. Acta Paediatr. 102(2):156-60.

Partanen E, Kujala T, Tervaniemi M, Huotilainen M. 2013. Prenatal music exposure induces long-term neural effects. PLoS One. 8(10):e78946.

Sambeth A, Ruohio K, Alku P, Fellman V, Huotilainen M. 2008. Sleeping newborns extract prosody from continuous speech. Clin Neurophysiol. 119(2):332-41.

Streri A, de Hevia M, Izard V, Coubart A. 2013. What do we Know about Neonatal Cognition? Behav Sci. 2013; 3: 154–169.

Voegtline KM, Costigan KA, Pater HA, DiPietro JA. 2013. Near-term fetal response to maternal spoken voice. Infant Behav Dev.36(4):526-33.

Image credits for “Newborn cognitive development”

title image of of baby staring at mother who is touching the baby’s forehead by istock /MJPS

image of baby squinting and touching mother by shutterstock / Amorn_Suriyan