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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.
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).
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
“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.”
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.