Prenatal music exposure

November 3, 2010 at 7:54 am

Earlier this evening I was playing the piano while my family sang songs. I noticed after I had been playing for a few minutes that the little babe in my belly starting moving around. And I remembered that last week’s pregnancy update email from Baby Center, informed me that (at 23 weeks) my baby was more and more aware of the sounds in my environment. So as I played the piano tonight, I got wondering what my little wombling thought of that piano music… and it got me thinking about the effects of prenatal music exposure.

Yesterday I learned that “playing Mozart through headphones to the pregnant belly won’t increase intelligence, and could even be harmful. A fetus isn’t expecting music to be blasted into the womb, and it may be so loud it causes damage” (interview with Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives). But what about the music a fetus is exposed to organically, simply through a pregnant mother’s actions and environment? Certainly I’m not harming my fetus by playing the piano, listening to my car stereo, or singing, but do those musical experiences have any benefits?

He loves playing the piano

During my last pregnancy, my fetal son was exposed regularly to Enya’s A Day Without Rain. To this day, hearing songs from that c.d. calms him and usually sends him quickly to sleep if in the car. A friend of mine discovered that the piano music of a particular song she had heard repeatedly during her pregnancy instantly calmed her newborn’s cries. Pregnant composer, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, speculates about how her music-infused work might impact her infant son:

When, according to the book, the baby could first hear, we were working on a terrific documentary, collaborating with Nneka Egbuna, the Nigerian hip-hop singer who is really fabulous . . . . So vibrations of West African music lilted their way, hour after hour, into the amniotic playlist. For a while we had decided that the only sounds that would soothe his baby cry would end up being Yoruba drumming, gourds and agogo bells. (Womb Music)

Penny Simkin has shared a story that also gives anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon:

[A man and wife I served as a birth doula] were having their second child, hoping for a VBAC. When they discovered that they were having a boy, they decided to give their baby the song, “Here Comes the Sun” and sang it to him often during pregnancy. The VBAC was not possible, and as the cesarean was underway, and the baby boy, crying lustily, was raised for the parents to see, the father began belting out the baby’s song. Though the mother didn’t have a strong voice under the circumstances, she also sang. The baby turned his head, turned his face right toward his father and calmed down while his father sang. Time stopped. As I looked around the operating room, I saw tears appear on the surgical masks. (Source)

It turns out that science supports the anecdotal evidence. Dr. Norman M. Weinberger, professor of neurobiology and behavior, explains:

Although few studies have been performed, they agree not only that music can be learned in utero but that it can also be remembered after birth. For example, one study reported that one-week-old infants prefer the lullaby sung by their mothers during pregnancy. Another investigation found that the prenatal lullaby had a greater soothing effect than a control song. There is also a report that maternal involvement in a prenatal music program increases bonding between mothers and their infants, although the basis for this effect is presently obscure. (Lessons of the Music Womb, 1999)

So, clearly fetuses can hear and remember and give preference to certain songs, but does this exposure to music make them smarter? Chinese researchers, Hong Kim, et al (2006), found some evidence that music does benefit the brains of fetuses, at least in rats. They concluded:

The exposure to the noise during pregnancy caused growth retardation, decreased neurogenesis in the hippocampus, and impaired spatial learning ability in pups. The exposure to music during pregnancy, on the other hand, caused increased neurogenesis in the hippocampus and enhanced spatial learning ability in pups. The present study has shown the importance of the prenatal environmental conditions for the cognition and brain development. (Source)

And Dr. Weinberger alerted me to a 1997 human study illustrating some cognitive benefits of prenatal music exposure:

Beginning the 28th – 30th weeks, mothers played tapes of basic elements of music, progressing over weeks from a three note major chord through more complex chords, for a total of 50-90 hours across subjects. During infancy the music group exhibited significantly more rapid development of many behaviors, including babbling, visual tracking, eye-hand coordination, exploring objects with the mouth, facial imitation, general motor coordination and ability to hold the bottle with both hands. (Source)

Fred J. Schwartz, M.D. speculates that we’ve only just discovered the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding how sounds and music impact fetal development:

The synaptic network in the fetal brain . . . undergoes learning-dependent reorganization. This process involves synaptic “pruning” or regression of neural circuits, as well as synaptic sprouting in the developing brain. . . . Since fetal hearing is probably the major component of this learning-dependent synaptic pruning and sprouting, the fetus is participating in a second and third trimester auditory amphitheater that is perhaps more important than any later classroom. We have only begun to explore the connection between sound and neurobiological development in the fetus and newborn. (Music and Perinatal Stress Reduction)

How intriguing to imagine that exposing our fetuses to good music could ensure that certain synapses “sprout” and develop rather than being “pruned” from lack of stimulation. How profound to envision our wombs as “auditory amphitheater[s] . . . more important than any later classroom.” What are we filling those amphitheaters (or “womb-pod” playlists) with? It definitely makes me rethink some of my radio station choices.

It’s amazing that music can not only influence our emotions but also our physical and mental processes. Some research indicates that soothing music produces a rise in oxytocin levels. Might a music-induced rise in oxytocin also have positive long-term effects for our fetuses? Research indicates that oxytocin release suppresses stress and anxiety and increases trust and bonding behaviors. Could the oxytocin release prompted by soothing music explain why “maternal involvement in a prenatal music program increases bonding between mothers and their infants” as mentioned by Dr. Weinberger above (Source)? It’s definitely cool to consider.

The truth is we really don’t know much unequivocally about how music affects the developing fetal brain, but what little we have discovered is promising. Regardless, I will keep playing the piano and singing. It may or may not raise my baby’s IQ, but it’s certainly not going to hurt. And it makes me smile knowing that my baby can hear the music I’m creating. My gut tells me it likes what it hears.