Can reading benefit an unborn baby? I received this question the other day from a very concerned pregnant patient of mine. Of course, I immediately said yes, but in reality, I wasn’t 100 percent sure. I wish a baby could learn in utero— I would’ve saved thousands of dollars in tuition— but a bigger question is: Is there science behind the transmission of sound into the womb?
It’s there I think we can unearth some positive findings. We know that by at least 23 weeks babies are able to hear sound. Sound, of course, is not only derived from the external sources of parental voices and music, but also the internal sounds of the mother’s inner body— the sound of her heartbeat, her circulation, the swishing sound of her breathing.
Sound is an important parameter in the development of the human brain. We know that sound in utero promotes the growth of the cognitive development that the brain needs to develop reasoning. Around this time, the baby’s neurons are migrating to— and forming connections in— the part of its brain that processes sound, the auditory cortex. Once this starts functioning and the baby is able to hear the low-frequency sounds in the womb, including the melody and rhythm of its mother’s voice. Even without hearing individual words, this may be a key part of early language acquisition.
We know that, once a baby develops hearing, the sound of its parents’ voices become a soothing element. To have this sensory confirmation of being cuddled in the womb is wonderful, an early manifestation of parental bonding.
We also know that, for years, many parents have played music for their unborn children because they believe it is a positive experience for their little one. The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been a popular choice, especially after the discovery of the so-called “Mozart Effect” in a 1993 paper that found that college students who listened to the Austrian composer before taking a test showed better results than those who didn’t. Since then, others have found the study results to be less impressive or non-existent, but his music remains a popular choice for babies in the womb.
However, I believe any music is good, as long as the mother enjoys it. Remember, not only is music perhaps soothing because of the sound it transmits through the walls of the womb, but if the mother is listening to music that makes her comfortable and relaxed, the hormones her body makes as a result of happiness and joy are also chemically transmitted into her baby. If you’re into The Beatles— knock yourself out!
Other prenatal tools have been touted as beneficial for baby, such as haptonomy— a holistic approach in which the mother “talks” to her baby through touch— and yoga, have also been very beneficial. However, the overall benefits, with exception of reduction of stress in the mother, need further evaluation.
Here’s the skinny in all of this: Reading, talking, listening to music and engaging with your child before its born can only bring positive effects to your pregnancy days. Infants that are born with that kind of experience tend to have a very predictable behavior of comfort, especially when those habits that started in the pre-delivery phase continue in the early years of that child.