Can Music In The Womb Give Baby A Head Start In Life?
After about 17 weeks of pregnancy, your baby will begin to hear sounds outside the womb; as mom begins to feel the first flutters of movement.
By 26 weeks, the baby's heartbeat will respond to sounds (including music) outside the womb. At 33 weeks gestation, babies may breathe in time to music, indicating an awareness of the beat. And by 38 weeks, a baby in the womb reacts differently to various types of music.
But how much can you curate what your baby hears, and can this give them a head start in life?
Can you make your baby smarter?
There's been some discussion of whether playing your baby classical music in the womb can make them more intelligent. Known as ‘The Mozart Effect’, the theory stems from a 1993 study at the University of California. It found that college students who listened to Mozart’s 1781 'Sonata in D Major' for a few minutes before their spatial relationship skills were tested, did better than students who took the test after listening to other genres of music, or no music at all. However, the effects only lasted for up to 15 minutes; and the test was never replicated with younger children, or babies. This didn’t stop many creches in the USA playing classical music to youngsters, and the State of Georgia even giving out free CDs of classical music to youngsters.
"I would simply say that there is no compelling evidence that children who listen to classical music are going to have any improvement in cognitive abilities," says Frances Rauscher, leader of the original ‘Mozart Effect’ experiment; now associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. "It's really a myth, in my humble opinion."
Classical music may not necessarily make your baby smarter; but there have been studies that show that it has a calming effect; which can promote healthy sleep patterns once baby is born. According to writer and musician Don Campbell, the complex musical structures of Classical music have an effect on the brain’s organising skills (though again, the effects are not long lasting.) But there’s no need to throw away your favourite vinyl just yet; it appears that all musical stimuli have some positive effect; with babies exposed to music before birth showing longer attention spans than expected for their age, and faster cognitive development.
Do you want baby to love all your favourite tunes?
Good news! It appears that babies can recognise sounds they heard frequently in the womb. However, this is not ‘memory’ as such, which develops later on; but a sense of recognition. The University of Helsinki conducted a trial in which 10 expectant mothers played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ regularly throughout the last trimester of pregnancy. A few days after birth, they took EEG recordings of each newborn’s brain: Hearing the lullaby again, babies had significantly larger brain responses compared to a control group of newborns who’d not been exposed to the song. After 4 months the experiment was repeated, with similar results.
This shows how your baby may have a sense of familiarity with favourite songs you play while pregnant; and some mothers have said that certain pieces of music that calm baby in the womb, also work when laying them down for naptime after they’re born.
Are you thinking of going to any gigs while you’re pregnant?
It appears that the noise shouldn’t be too much of an issue, as long as you’re not standing right next to the speakers. Sounds in the womb are muffled by the amniotic fluid (a bit like when you have your head underwater in a swimming pool,) though the base is conducted more than higher sounds, by the amniotic fluid.
Be aware that you might need to sit down more, or take little walks around during the concert; and don’t stand too close to the front in case you’re jostled by all the crowds. If in doubt, check with your doctor before going.
“The sound a baby hears in the womb is highly muffled, consisting mostly of low frequencies," says Rick Gilmore, associate professor of psychology at Penn State University. "Inside the womb, people's voices sound like Charlie Brown's teacher, sort of like a muted trumpet.”
Can you get a head start with baby’s behaviour?
The theory of prenatal learning, is that using various ‘audio lessons’ of heartbeatlike tones, played through a device you wear on your baby bump. The foetus learns to recognize patterns, and differentiate sounds. Devotees are convinced that this creates babies who are particularly engaged, aware and smart.
Read next: Should You Talk To Your Unborn Baby?
Devices can offer anything from calming tones to foreign languages; and all promise anxious parents a better, calmer baby. As one Prenatal Education System BabyPlus promises that it ‘helps give your child a better chance of being self-soothing, attentive, curious, and of reaching important infant development milestones in the strongest way.’
But while many parents rave about the incredible effects of these machines (which can vary hugely in price depending on their complexity,) experts maintain that there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. As Professor Gilmore confirms: "While in utero learning does indeed exist, the type of learning is quite simple. There's very little evidence of any specific thing a parent can do to affect a child's intelligence or temperament before birth." Maybe what Baby experiences naturally in the womb does more than enough for their development? They certainly have plenty going on with their own physical development; as well as the sound of mom’s heartbeat, and familiarising themselves with noises from the outside world.
Do the gadgets make a difference?
There are a number of specialist devices that can play music or sounds to your baby; whether they attach to your bump, or (slightly stranger) are inserted into the vagina like a tampon. They may be a nice treat for special mom and baby bonding time if you're a gadget fan; But if you’d like to listen along with your unborn child, playing your chosen tunes (whether Mozart, Ariana Grande, or AC/DC) on your usual speaker system, or your phone could work just as well; saving yourself a bit of cash.
Moms who want to expose their unborn baby to music shouldn't turn the volume up too loud: Very loud music could overstimulate the foetus or even damage the developing ear; particularly with low-pitched base sounds. The ideal level is about 70 decibels, which is typically a comfortable listening level for mom too.
Do you have any favourite tunes you play for your baby? Have you noticed a reaction to different songs? We'd love to hear!