Can you make baby smarter before birth?


Expectant mothers want to get everything right. We try to eat right, and pray that there are no complications. We stay away from caffeine and fruits sprayed with pesticides and pop DHA supplements. We do everything to give our babies a head start—and it’s happening earlier and earlier.

Too early for some, in fact, Jen Taylor, a pharmacist in Richmond, VA, who has a 7 year old and an 18 month old, says that pregnant mothers worry too much about what they should be doing, which only adds unnecessary stress.

Aside from taking nutritional supplements and trying to get her baby to move by shining a flashlight on her belly, Jen was laid back during her pregnancies. “You can’t control everything about your child,” she says, “I believe my kids are who they were meant to be.”

In the last couple of decades, researchers have emerged with numerous theories about promoting increased prenatal development, from implementing the “Mozart effect” to having your unborn child listen to a heartbeat at different speeds, both alleged brain boosters. While one website promises to share the secret of teaching your fetus “25 words before they’re born” (for only $39.95!), a new book says it can tell you how to bond with your child by channeling your baby’s spirit.

The bottom line: At 18 weeks, we know that babies can hear. So it’s up to you to figure out what you want to say and do—and if you believe that you can have an impact. So whether you want to toss these theories out with the diapers or add them to your mommy repertoire, just remember: The brain is like a parachute: It works best when it’s open.

Brain power

Ann Byrd began reading her baby Dr. Seuss books as soon as she became pregnant. She read emails aloud at work and her husband recited whatever he was reading in bed. She also played the fetus a classical music CD for 30 minutes each day. “My husband and I have a long-standing joke that our gene pool has a little too much chlorine in it,” she says. “We were going to do everything we could to make him as smart as possible.”

She believes her son recognized that music when he was born. “It was the CD we used to calm him,” Byrd says. Today, the 4 year old’s vocabulary is advanced and he tested into his district’s gifted program. “There’s no proof that any of this did anything for his intelligence, but I honestly believe it played a role,” she says.

While babies may recognize the stories they were read or music they listened to in the womb, experts say there’s no evidence that prenatal exposure to classical music or books will make your baby smarter. We do know that once they’re born, babies know the sound of their mother’s voice and prefer hearing it. They also prefer to hear whatever language she’s been speaking, since they’re familiar with those sounds.

And we know that fetuses are capable of the simplest form of learning, know as habituation. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of What’s Going On In There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, says that when late-term fetuses are exposed to the same stimulus repeatedly, they stop responding as vigorously to it. “Learning is the change of the brain as a result of experience or a change in behavior,” she says. “It tells us that there are circuits that are able to respond and adapt to the environment.”

F. Rene Van de Carr, M.D., a retired obstetrics and gynecology doctor in Hayward, CA, is the founder of the now-defunct Prenatal University, where he experimented with mother/fetus communication. Mothers tapped their bellies each time the baby kicked, beginning a dialogue in “touch communication.” Van de Carr claims that over time mothers would tap or rub their bellies first—and their babies would kick back, although his studies are largely anecdotal.

Eliot doesn’t buy it. “It’s true that babies can recognize a familiar song or story that they heard before birth, but does that mean it will make them smarter? No,” Eliot says. If you enjoy reading aloud or tapping out tunes on your belly, she encourages you to do so, but don’t be fooled into thinking it will help your baby’s thinking skills. “The cerebral cortex is really immature before birth,” she says. “There’s very little cortical activity, which is where conscious learning takes place.”

Liz Moore, a pediatrician in Carmel, IN, used BabyPlus Prenatal Curriculum Program when she was pregnant with Mary, 3, and Lucy, 9 months. Beginning at 18 weeks, Moore wore the device, which looks likes a fanny pack and simulates the sound of a mother’s heartbeat, for an hour in the morning and evening. The curriculum consists of 16 auditory lessons and is designed to strengthen learning abilities. The heartbeat beeps at different speeds, which allegedly inspires your fetus to track the sounds, look for the changes, and learn. Moore, 33, was skeptical the first time she used it, but she liked that the baby seemed to move around more to the rhythmic sounds. Today, she believes it’s why Mary and Lucy are so smart.

Lisa Jarrett, president of BabyPlus, says that people often accuse her of trying to manufacture geniuses. “Would you accuse a mom taking a vitamin that she’s trying to make an Olympian?” Jarrett asks. “No. But if you can enrich the environment of your baby, why wouldn’t you?” Still, there’s only anecdotal evidence supporting the claims of BabyPlus, which sold 18,000 devices last year. David Chamberlain, editor of the Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology, says “People are overdoing it. Babies are natural learners. If parents are getting results, it’s luck.”

Janet Dipietro, a developmental psychologist at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, studies fetal development. She says that directing classical music to your belly or using a device like BabyPlus could actually harm the fetus, rather than help. Studies of animals suggest that prenatal sensory stimulation beyond what is typical can interfere with normal development. While Jarrett says the device is no louder than the sounds most babies hear in the womb, Dipietro says we still don’t know if it’s helping—or hurting.

It’s up to you

The one thing all experts agree upon is the undeniable power of the mother/child connection. So regardless of popular wisdom, use this opportunity to tap into your own instincts about what’s right for your baby, before and after she’s born. And above all, enjoy the ride.

– Brooke Lea Foster is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in New York City.

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