Pregnancy music: the effect on unborn babies
Music to their ears
How and why your baby reacts to music in the womb
Scientists have proved that, in the third trimester, an unborn baby can recognise their mother’s voice, their native language, and even begin to remember word patterns and rhymes1,2. It makes sense then, that music also has an impact, but does listening to classical music really make a foetus any cleverer?
For more of the science behind your baby’s early language development in the womb – and how you can encourage it – explore our series of Hello In There articles and videos.
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The ‘Mozart effect’
The concept that playing classical music to your bump made your child more intelligent became popular in the late 1990s, spawning an industry that sold brain-boosting music to pregnant mums3,4. But the reality is that there’s little proof it’ll make your offspring any brighter. The legend springs from psychologist Frances Rauscher's study into American college students, where she found a small link between IQ and listening to Mozart. How the jump was made from students to unborn babies is something of a mystery, but may just be down to our natural desire to do what’s best for our children3.
Although Mozart may not make your little one any smarter, it may make their brain more active. Babies in the womb have shown increased brain activity when exposed to music5.
Your voice & your baby
There has been a great deal of research into the effect of a mother’s voice on her unborn child. When a mother reads aloud, her voice has a calming effect on her unborn or newborn baby, decreasing their heart rate5. Intonation in a voice has been proved to shape auditory learning, leading to her newborn recognising, and forming a preference for, their mother’s voice6. And not only does her voice affect the development of her baby’s auditory system, but amazingly, it also impacts their social and emotional development5.
Music and the brain
Despite a lack of evidence that classical music creates cleverer babies, interesting studies have shown that music may have a part to play in brain development before birth. European research in 2013, for example, showed that exposing an unborn baby to music had a long-term effect on their brain7. They found that newborn babies could remember a version of 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' played to them in the womb and responded differently when alternative versions were played. These memories created before they were born, lasted until they were four months old7.
Incredibly, other studies have shown that babies are born with the innate ability to detect musical beats8. And even more importantly, some research suggests that soothing music may encourage premature babies to feed, and could improve their vital signs like heart rate and O2 saturation levels9.
Singing lullabies to babies has always come naturally to parents and carers, and it may well be that there are benefits from listening to music in the womb that are yet to be fully understood.
As an interesting aside, research from 2014 shows that pregnant women are more sensitive to music than those who aren’t pregnant, exhibiting an increase in blood pressure in response10.
In the third trimester your baby will definitely be able to hear the music you play5. And while gentle sounds, like lullabies, are designed to be soothing, unborn babies are startled by very loud or erratic noises, and too much noise may be stressful11. Make sure the volume is not too high and that your music choice is fairly melodic – perhaps wait a few more years before introducing your baby to your favourite thrash metal tracks!
- Why not play music around the house and see if you get a reaction? Just remember to keep the volume down!
- Relaxation is good for both of you, so make time to put your feet up and listen to songs that make you happy.
- If you enjoy going to see live music, go for it. Your baby is protected from most loud noises by the layers surrounding them. Exposure to prolonged and extreme noise, however, may be harmful.
- Singing songs to your bump is a lovely way to bond, and your baby will appreciate your voice, even if others don’t.
- Find out more about the amazing benefits of talking to your bump.
This is just one article exploring the science behind early language development. Find out more with Hello In There, our insightful series of expert articles and videos.
1. Voegtline KM et al. Near-term fetal response to maternal spoken voice Infant Behavior & Development 2013;36:526–533
2. Kisilevsky BS et al. Fetal sensitivity to properties of maternal speech and language. Infant Behav Dev 2008;32:59-71.
3. Swaminathan N. Babies Exposed to classical music end up smarter [Online]. 2007. Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-babies-ex/ [Accessed: April 2016].
4. Jahn M et al. Music devices for the fetus? An evaluation of pregnancy music belts. J Perinat Med. 2015 Aug 13. pii: [Epub ahead of print].
5. Partanen E et al. Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2013;110:15145-5.
6. Fifer WP and Moon CM. The role of mother’s voice in the organization of brain function in the newborn Acta Paediatr Suppl 1994; 397:86–93
7. Partanen E et al. Prenatal music exposure induces long-term neural effects. PLoS One 2013;8(10):e78946
8. Winkler I et al. Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2009;106(7):2468-71.
9. Loewy J et al. The effects of music therapy on vital signs, feeding, and sleep in premature infants. Pediatrics 2013;131(5):902-18.<
10. Hans Fritz T et al. Enhanced response to music in pregnancy. Psychophysiology 2014;51(9):905-11.
11. Committee on Environmental Health. Noise: A hazard for the fetus and newborn. Pediatrics 1997;100(4):724-7.
Last reviewed: 19th June 2016
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