by Patricia Hughes
Toys, music CDs and other merchandise designed to provide music to unborn and newborn babies tout the positive effects of music on developing babies. Expectant parents may wonder if they should purchase these products, or fear they are putting their baby at a disadvantage if they don't listen to enough, or the right kind of music. Expert opinions vary regarding whether music has a positive effect.
Various studies conducted over the past two decades have demonstrated the ability of the fetus to hear sound. The inner ear is fully developed in last trimester of pregnancy. By 26 weeks, most respond with an increase in heart rate to sound stimulation. Many studies have pointed to the change in heart rate as a positive sign that the baby is stimulated by the music.
One study published in the Music Educators Journal looked at the effect of exposure to music in the prenatal period. Some participants were given music in the womb, either sedating or stimulating musical selections. After the birth of the baby, the parents and infants visited the researcher, and a range of activities and responses were observed by researchers. The study found that exposure to music in the prenatal period seemed to be linked to increased attention, more sound imitation and earlier vocalization in the baby.
Most of what the fetus hears is the mother's voice and internal sounds of the mother's body, such as breathing, movements and other sounds. There have been many studies that suggest the mother's voice is the preferred sound of newborns, who appear to recognize their mother's voice at birth. Singing along with music makes sense because it gives baby the opportunity to hear your voice and music.
It makes sense that stimulation of the brain with music would have a positive effect. It is when the baby is growing in the mother's body that the majority of brain development occurs. The idea behind research into music exposure during the pregnancy is designed to enhance the development of the brain with appropriate stimuli. Research continues into this subject and determining which music has the most positive effect.
Not all scientists agree that music has positive effects on the fetus. Some reject the theory that an increase in heart rate signals a positive response in the fetus. One such researcher is University of California neuroscientist Gordon Shaw. Shaw suggests the change could be a signal the baby is not comfortable with the sound.
There is some evidence to suggest the type of music may influence the baby's response. Soothing, classical music and nature sounds are believed to be soothing, while louder types of music may startle the baby.
Another factor is the volume of the music, which could be played too loudly. Some people believe the sounds are muffled and increase the volume or put speakers or headphones on the abdomen directly playing into the baby's head. Sound is conducted by the amniotic fluid and it is easy for this method to produce music that is too loud for the baby.
It's important to note that there are no long term studies that demonstrate listening to music in the womb will influence the baby's intelligence or translate into success in learning later. However, this idea is based on anecdotal evidence that classical music stimulates different areas of the brain, which is thought to stimulate better connections in the brain. The hypothesis is that the increase in connectors will result in enhanced memory and information processing functions of the brain later. This theory has yet to be proven with research, and may or may not turn out to be the case.
Whether or not exposure to music will make baby smarter, there is some evidence to suggest soft music, such as quiet classical music and nature sounds have a calming effect on the baby. This often continues after birth. Many babies are soothed by the same soft music they heard during the pregnancy and recognize the rhythm. Several studies have demonstrated the newborn's ability to recognize certain music selections that were played during pregnancy.
Music benefits mom by helping to her to relax or lifting a low mood. That is good for the baby because research has demonstrated that baby is affected by mom's emotions. So, choose music that you find relaxing and not too loud. Loud music is not good, as it can startle the baby. A general rule of thumb is to keep the music to the level that is played in stores.
Products are sold to parents as essential tools for playing music for the baby and reaping any benefit that may result from music exposure. A typical style is a belt that is worn around the belly to project the music to the baby. Check the decibel level to make sure the music is at a comfortable level for baby. These products are nice, but not necessary. Because the amniotic fluid conducts sound well, playing music in the background as you go about your day works too.
Patricia Hughes is a freelance writer and mother of four. Patricia has a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Florida Atlantic University. She has written extensively on pregnancy, childbirth, parenting and breastfeeding. In addition, she has written about home décor and travel.
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