What's It Like in the Womb?

What's it Like in the Womb?

10 min read

Jesse Rapp wasn't born until May, but he and his parents were playing together long before that.

At night, Morgan often rested his head on Richele's pregnant belly, calling Jesse by name and feeling him wriggle in response. Sometimes the couple would play games. They'd gently poke first one side of Richele's abdomen, then the other, and watch as Jesse followed their touch by poking the same side back. They even teased him by poking the same side twice and laughed as he poked the "wrong" side back.

All their prenatal shenanigans paid off. In the recovery room, it seemed abundantly clear Jesse recognized his parents right away, turning his head in their direction when either one spoke. When he cried, he'd calm down instantly at the sound of their voices.

"It was so exciting because there was this trust and communication and a certain sense of bonding between us right away," says Morgan Rapp. "And for him, I think, it was reassuring because he had a sense already of where he was."

Thanks to ultrasound and other high-tech tools allowing a peek inside the womb, scientists have discovered a virtual sensory playground in which your baby is living. The fetus responds to your voice and other sounds in the room, reacts to light and dark shadows as you move from place to place, tumbles as you switch positions, even tastes sweet or spicy foods you've just eaten.

Experts believe these experiences cause physiological changes in your fetus' sensory systems that are necessary for normal brain growth. But the question is: Is more better?

There's already an array of tapes and gadgets on the market that help parents talk, sing or pipe classical music into the womb via little speakers on the uterus. One researcher has even developed a "curriculum" designed to speak to the fetus and supposedly boost intelligence, coordination and well-being.

Don't feel pressured to pull out the credit card just yet.

Most researchers studying fetal development say Mother Nature and the stimuli your baby naturally receives in the womb from your everyday conversations and activities are good enough to prepare your baby for the outside world. Study of how the human brain develops still is in its infancy, but there's no convincing scientific evidence that deliberate fetal acoustic stimulation, as it's called, influences intelligence, creativity or later development.

"Nature does a pretty good job of programming or presenting the necessary kinds of stimulation that a fetus should get at the appropriate times during development," says William Fifer, a developmental psychobiologist at Columbia University. In fact, experts worry that sticking speakers or headphones up to your abdomen could actually disrupt your baby's sleep patterns or the natural order of growth.

If there's any benefit to spending time talking to your baby or letting your favorite music filter naturally through the uterine wall, it's as much for the parents as for the baby, they say. "I think most of the purpose of talking to your baby is to give people a chance to sort of attach, to get used to the fact that this new creature is going to be a big part of your life," says Fifer.

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."

Your baby's sense of touch begins to develop early in pregnancy as it explores the uterine wall, umbilical cord and even its own body parts, spending the most time touching its face. As early as the ninth week, your baby will respond when its lips or areas around the mouth are touched. By the eighth month, it moves towards the source with mouth open, the beginnings of the rooting reflex, which the baby needs to begin nursing and sucking on a bottle after birth.

Smell and taste are often hard to separate, so they're described as chemosensations. Just try sucking on a Jelly Belly while plugging up your nose, suggests Julie Mennella, a psychobiologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. From about the fourth month of pregnancy, the fetus is gulping and inhaling a variety of foods you've eaten through the amniotic fluid, and by the third trimester, your baby can tell whether it's bitter, sweet, sour or even garlicky, and will show preferences for certain tastes.

Researchers say that learning about tastes and smells in the womb are actually preparing your baby for life after birth. Not only are newborns comforted by their mother's smell, which is likely introduced first through the amniotic fluid, but they're already familiar in the same way with the taste of mother's breast milk. Some animal studies even suggest that the more varied a pregnant mom's diet, the more open the offspring will be to different foods.

Fetuses also begin to develop a sense of balance from their movements in utero. Not only are they gently tumbling and floating in the amniotic fluid, but your own movements will cause the baby's position to change. Those movements stimulate a structure in the ear that helps the brain process information about motion and body position. By 25 weeks the fetus displays a righting reflex, which may be responsible for most babies turning head down before delivery.

This motion also stimulates emotional changes in your baby. You may notice that your baby is more still when you're very active, and then at night becomes active when you're still. Once your baby is born, you'll probably find that when they're fussy, you can quiet them by rocking them, reminiscent of the movements they experienced in the womb.

Your baby's sight is the last sense to be developed and won't be fine-tuned until after birth, but growth inside the womb begins early. The eye pockets form by about five weeks of pregnancy, and by the fourth month, the eyes are almost completely formed. Your baby's eyelids won't open until the seventh month, when the fetus will begin opening and closing them and rolling the eyes around, as if testing them out. A bright light can penetrate the uterus and may make the fetus more active.

When Kurt and Cathy Meyer of Fishers, Ind., were expecting their daughter, who was born almost a year ago, they did everything they could to give Marie a running start. They read to her. They talked to her. They even researched all the different prenatal stimulation products on the market.

They settled on BabyPlus, a "cardiac curriculum" developed by Seattle developmental psychologist Brent Logan. The 16-tape series of audio tapes deliver sonic patterns to stimulate the fetus' nervous system and exercise its developing brain.

"We were looking for every possible competitive edge for our child," says Kurt Meyer. "From a parent's perspective, if you deprive your child of any opportunity to learn, you haven't done your job."

It's hard to prove the effect BabyPlus had on Marie. But the couple is convinced the prenatal stimulation allowed her to sleep better after birth and reach developmental milestones, like saying words and understanding when others spoke to her, faster.

"We have a lady who watches her three days a week, a mother of two who watches three other children about the same age as Marie, and almost a week doesn't go by when she hasn't told us that Marie is doing something, where the other kids aren't quite there yet," says Meyer, who owns a commercial real estate company.

The BabyPlus system consists of a belt with two tiny speakers fastened onto the mother's abdomen for two one-hour periods per day over 16 weeks in the second trimester. The series of tapes features an imitation of the mother's heartbeat, only the rhythms get progressively more complicated and faster with each tape. The cost of the system is $180.

"Since we knew the mother's blood pulse is serving as the fetus' most elementary instruction, why not create a more intelligent heart, an orchestrated heart, that would be able to provide successive progressions of schooling?" Logan says.

He says stimulating additional brain connections early is particularly important since a significant portion of brain cells naturally die off in the later stage of pregnancy. "Like exercising a muscle, by getting the fetal brain to oscillate faster at more mature rhythms, you're able to lock into place a more mature brain," he says.

But Fifer and other experts say there's no scientific data supporting these claims and worry that fiddling with this timing by amplifying sound with speakers or headphones into the womb could be disruptive to your baby's sleep patterns, and even harmful. For most of the pregnancy, your baby sleeps about 95 percent of the time, even as you feel it moving or hiccupping.

He also worries the stimuli could confound the timing of brain development established through years of evolution. "The message is that it's not a good thing to lose these extra brain cells, when in fact that's how nature programs things ... to make room for the connections and wiring that turn a brain into a mind," says Fifer.

"We actually know very little about the developing brain and the environment it needs to develop well," agrees DiPietro. "No one would argue that you wouldn't stick a speaker next to a newborn baby when they're sound asleep and blast music in its ear."

The same goes for the fetus. "We have no idea what it's doing to the developing brain, and to assume it's a good thing is really foolish. It's much more likely to be interfering with normative brain development," DiPietro says. There's even some research showing that fetus will tune out repetitive external stimuli.

DiPietro puts the concept of prenatal stimulation right up there with flash cards and early reading programs -- that it puts even more pressure on parents to overstimulate their kids.

"When you start trying to create kind of a super baby before they're even born, you set up a bad dynamic between parents and children," she says. "You're expecting a baby to be a certain way. Why not wait until the baby's born, see who they are, then try to support their particular needs and abilities."