"Hello, baby," the women said to their wombs. "This is mommy and daddy talking. We love you." Then they patted their bellies.

That was the first step of a study to determine whether fetuses can begin to learn before birth. The preliminary evidence is that they can.

"Fetal stimulation is too new to correlate patterned stimulation with higher IQ levels," says Susan M. Ludington of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Nursing. "But I believe that both the fetus and mother benefit in other ways from such stimulation.

"For example, we do know that fetal rocking stimulates brain development."

In the study, parents were told to do the introductory "Hello, baby" routine three or four times starting at 20 weeks. Then they played a tape of certain speech and sound patterns.

After they were born, when the babies heard the tape again, they "displayed a consistent reaction," Ludington told the Nurses' Association of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "The reactions ranged from moving an arm, turning a head to kicking a leg."

Parents who don't provide regular stimulation need not feel guilty, she says. "The womb already provides a fairly stimulating environment with light, sound and smell," all helping the child develop.