Broadcasting to Bellies During Pregnancy

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By now you must have heard about the Babypod sound system. This information reached my Facebook feed in early January and then just wouldn’t stop. For the few of you who haven’t heard, the Babypod is a vaginal sound system that directly feeds music to a fetus during a woman’s pregnancy. Imagine a tampon equipped with a sound system, and … umm, well … you’ve got the idea. Babies can naturally hear sounds inside Mom’s belly, and can remember some of these sounds once they’ve reached the outside world. The idea behind the Babypod is that if a little sound is good, then more is better. Makes sense, right? Except…

First, fetuses already get valuable information from sounds they receive naturally through the womb. The womb provides a natural filter, emphasizing features such as melody and rhythm. Melody and rhythm enhance the development of language and social cognition.

Second, scientists still don’t know whether more (i.e., less filtered) sound is helpful for babies. It is equally possible that it may be harmful.

Let’s tackle one issue at a time

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1) Typically developing babies receive auditory signals through the womb and somehow manage to learn spoken language. And naturally filtered sounds have benefits for babies. Imagine yourself caught in the world of Charlie Brown and his friends listening to a grown-up. The sounds you hear might not sound like language (wa-wa-wa-waaa) but they highlight melody and rhythm. It turns out that these two features are important for babies.

Melody

Caregivers across the world speak to their babies with exaggerated melodies. These pitch contours give babies cues to the identity of their own mother and key words in an endless speech stream. Young babies also understand whether melodies in speech are happy, sad, prohibitive or comforting. Caregivers usually do not speak to other adults with exaggerated melodies because adults already understand the linguistic content. Of course, caregivers’ melodic input is also linked to babies’ developing sense of musical melody.

Rhythm

Caregivers speak and sing to their babies much more slowly than they do to adults. They also take significant pauses after each sentence or phrase (e.g., “You’re getting sooooo big! … Sooooo big!”). Babies likely take in the information more easily and efficiently at the slowed-down pace. Babies are also getting simultaneous visual information from caregivers’ faces and tactile information from their touches. The timing of this input likely allows babies’ to learn about all the sources of information. Moreover, research shows that the development of the social bond among babies and their caregivers might be tied explicitly to the rhythm of speech and song. Researchers studying the rhythm capabilities in young human babies suggest that keeping time and synchronizing with one another helps develop social connections. In fact, recent studies have also shown that this even holds true for nonhuman animals, like bonobo monkeys, sea lions, and parrots!

2) Is more (i.e., less filtered) sound helpful or harmful to babies? Babies with no help from Bellybuds or Babypods develop preferences for their own mother’s voice, their native language, and familiar songs and stories by the time they take their first breath. So what advantage might we expect from “enhancing” the sound? Especially when we consider the risks. Presenting sounds at a higher level might produce sounds that are too loud for the developing cochlea (or auditory system). Moreover, the natural filters of the mother’s womb might enhance exactly the right features for the developing abilities of language and social cognition.

Hopefully by now you’re convinced enough not to spend big bucks on external or…ahem…internal sound devices for your unborn baby when they’re already getting such rich information about speech, music and social communication. Instead, focus on making your auditory input of the highest quality by speaking (and singing) to your baby with an attuned, musical voice.

November 2018

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