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What Can My Baby Bump Hear?

When I was pregnant I thought a lot about creating a calm, stress-free experience for my baby. I listened to Mozart or Enya. I am not a big Enya fan, but the music was always tranquil, if repetitive. As far as Mozart went, I knew the theory that listening to Mozart could raise IQ levels in babies had been debunked (in studies by psychologist Christopher Chabris and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in Germany), but I liked the idea of my fetus hearing something beautiful. I put symphonies 40, 32 and 41 on heavy rotation. Gone from my playlist were the Raconteurs, Beck and even Otis Redding.

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But can a fetus really hear much at all? “Fetal hearing is fully developed at 24 weeks, and low-frequency sounds can be perceived,” says Dr. Carl Smith, Professor and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “Sound is vibration, which the neural connections in a fetus are able to process. Yet it’s hard to judge what a fetus can actually hear from the outside world.”

A fetus can hear the steady drumming of the mother's heartbeat and the rush of blood through veins.

Dr. Smith pointed out that the womb in and of itself is not a quiet place. A fetus can hear the steady drumming of its mother’s heartbeat and the rush of blood through veins. It can also hear stomach noises, bowel sounds and other day-to-day operations of the body. Hmmm. Perhaps this is why newborns find white noise to be so calming.

Annie Murphy Paul’s book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, is about fetal research into what we learn before birth. “Babies learn the sound of their mother’s voice,” Paul said in a recent TED talk. “Once the baby is born, it recognizes her voice and prefers listening to her voice over anyone else’s.” Hearing that reminded me of being a small child trying to go to sleep and finding that the sound of my own mother’s voice talking on the telephone was inexpressibly soothing (as was the sound of her electric typewriter clacking away—another noise that I heard in utero).

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So fetuses can hear and recognize sounds from the womb after they’re born. But what if you didn’t play soothing New Age or classical music? Say your husband is a Bon Jovi fan. Or your older daughter is really into Justin Bieber. And played it. Nonstop. It’s not going to bring down anyone’s IQ. But a recent study by the University of Alberta in Canada does show that premature babies in the NICU are calmer when they listen to soothing music.

“It’s difficult to predict the long-term beneficial effect of music heard in utero,” says Dr. Smith. “Researchers would have to follow fetuses for the next 20 years of their lives and isolate the differences in parents, schools and environments to know what the effects are. It has been shown that for fetuses who hear music, it has a calming effect on them after they’re born. But that has to do with the familiarity of sound more than anything else.”

From my own experience I can tell you that my son is passionate about music. But the kind of music he likes is not Classical or New age. He’s always gravitated toward R&B, Blues and Soul—Marvin Gaye, BB King, Irma Thomas, Bo Diddley. Clearly we listen to a lot of music at home and he was exposed to different kinds. But I think exposure is all that is needed. Humans have an innate response to rhythm and harmony, whether they prefer opera or show tunes. Fill your house with music that is joyful and make it a part of your day, every day. Enjoy (and film!) your child dancing and singing and take him or her to see and experience as much live music as possible. Don’t worry about the rest. In the end, children will grow to explore the world and follow their own interests.

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