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What's It Like in the Womb?

What's it Like in the Womb?

Look Who's Listening

Your baby's hearing is intact by the third trimester, when sonograms show that a fetus will actually turn its head to respond to a sound. But studies have shown that your unborn child can hear sounds as early as 20 weeks and will be startled by loud noises at about 25 weeks. Very loud sounds can cause changes in your baby's heart rate and movements, and sometimes even cause them to empty their bladders.

Instead of the womb being the quiet place scientists once assumed, it is actually awash in sounds, particularly the whooshing of your blood and digestive system, the thumping of your heart and your voice, which sounds louder than it would transmitted through the air since it reverberates through the bones and fluids in your body.

Noises from outside your body are more muffled but they also make it through surprisingly clearly, says Robert Abrams, a fetal physiologist in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Florida. Low frequency sounds, such as those above middle C, tend to be more audible than higher frequency ones. Men's voices, for instance, come through clearer than women's, and music also is easily recognizable.

It appears the fetus can even hear specific speech patterns and intonations, although probably not recognize words themselves, Fifer says. Some studies have shown that babies after birth will recognize -- and be comforted by -- a story read repeatedly to them while in the womb or even by particular songs, like the theme from a television show watched regularly during pregnancy.

Much has been made of the benefits of playing classical music to children because it supposedly enhances spatial development. Why not, some speculate, do the same for the unborn child?

Indeed, fetuses breathe in time to music they enjoy, according to Dr. Rene Van de Carr, a California OB-Gyn who teaches parents how to stimulate unborn babies through music and other exercises at the Prenatal University in Hayward, Calif. He is also author of "While You're Expecting ... Your Own Prenatal Classroom."

Dr. Van de Carr claims such aural stimulation not only increases neural connections in the brain and enhances brain growth, but encourages parents to be more attentive and interactive and sets expectations for achievement later on. He suggests expectant parents stimulate their babies for about five to 10 minutes twice a day. The key is not to get too repetitive with any one activity or the baby will tune it out, he says.

Yet much of the hullabaloo over the so-called Mozart effect has been exaggerated, says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist who studies fetal development at Johns Hopkins University. The research has been done primarily on adults, and the only children that have been studied were 3- and 4-year-olds, who were actually playing the music on keyboards rather than simply listening to it.

And many experts say the jury's still out on whether it's in-utero interventions -- or simply genetics and a nurturing environment after birth -- that make your baby smarter, more musically inclined or better adjusted.

"I tell people that if they like classical music then play it, but if they don't, then don't," says DiPietro. "It think it's irrelevant to the fetus, unless the mom likes to come home, put her feet up and turn on music that's relaxing to her. That's the way the baby gets the effect."

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