Research indicates that a variety of stimulation while babies are in the womb is the start to building and promoting cognitive development. From playing music to reading to physical interaction in utero, stimulated babies are able to begin life with an advantage, being born with what some researchers consider more confidence in themselves and the ability to learn more easily. In addition to stimulating and purposefully interacting with the baby, staying relaxed and keeping stress levels at a minimum for the mother are also necessary for promoting fetal brain development.
Fetal development is the start for babies to learn and grow. In fact, “compromised fetal development may have effects on health and cognition that stretch through childhood into adulthood” (Hobel et al., 2008, p. 333). Immediately getting started by making sure that babies have everything they need while in the womb is essential. Considering that the nervous system begins developing at conception and the earliest stages of gestation, it makes sense that stimulating babies while in the womb would be beneficial for their ability to engage and develop cognitively. Stimulating through music, reading, and touch, and reducing stress can help to start cognitive development on a positive note.
Music, in the cognitive development of children, is utilized in educational programs throughout the world and is widely regarded as an important part in the development of babies’ brains. In fact, “The latest data show that music and language are so intertwined that an awareness of music is critical to a baby’s language development … As children grow, music fosters communication skills. Our sense of song helps us learn to talk, read, and even make friends” (Schiller, 2010, p. 27). The cognitive advantage enjoyed by babies who are played music while in the womb is well documented. And, considering that babies in the womb are able to hear a great deal from the external environment early in the gestational period, it is best to get started early. By week 18, the ear and brain are able to hear blood and the mother’s heartbeat. At 24 weeks, the ear is fully formed, and as early as Week 25, babies are able to hear voices and sounds from the external environment, giving babies a head start after birth for language development.
Lullabies, classical music, and children’s songs are reasonable options, when choosing what genre of music to introduce to the baby, because of the ability for these types of songs to also soothe and relax. However, any music that the mother enjoys will be just as pleasant for your developing baby.
Storytime with Baby
A recent study “shows that unborn babies are listening to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy; and at birth, they can demonstrate what they’ve heard” (“Babies Learn,” 2013, p. 15). In the study, newborns were observed for their reactions to vowel sounds, which are the most recognizable of the elements of speech.
All communication with a baby while in the womb is beneficial for acquiring language. Reading stories, in particular, is helpful in part because of the sound of the mother’s voice, which is often the most powerful because she is closer to the baby and the sound is amplified.
Just as when children first begin to learn to read outside of the womb, choosing books that utilize repetition, rhyming, and rhythm can help to stimulate cognitive development, pattern recognition, and language skills. While encouraging the cognitive development of the baby, mothers are also able to create a bonding experience, and by choosing a relaxing and quiet place to read to the baby, mothers can help to reduce their own stress levels.
Bonding through Touch
It is not uncommon to see a pregnant woman touching her stomach, patting or rubbing rhythmically as soon as pregnancy is determined. It seems to be a natural response to being pregnant, as if mothers unconsciously are beginning to make contact with their babies.
Conscious touch stimulation can begin anytime, and by Week 8, babies are sensitive to touch, and will begin to move and touch themselves. When the baby is large enough to begin pushing a foot or hand through, touching back is one step for creating a bond and stimulating the baby. Massaging while in the womb is another option for touch stimulation. The baby will often respond to this stimulation, kicking or pushing back. Research also suggests that this type of stimulation is relaxing and reassuring for baby in the womb, lowering heart rate and limiting movement.
Babies need for touch and interaction in the womb has been noted in several studies. For example, in a study on twin fetuses conducted in Italy, researchers determined that “fetuses begin reaching toward their neighbors by the 14th week of gestation … By the 18th week they spent more time contacting their partners than themselves … These movements, such as stroking the head or back, lasted longer and were more accurate than self-directed actions” (Weaver, 2011).
Staying Relaxed and Stress-Free
There are several reasons to lower stress levels as much as possible while pregnant. Stress has been linked to poor health for the mother, including high blood pressure during pregnancy, and these factors can sometimes result in premature birth or low birth weight in newborns. In contrast, mothers who maintain low stress levels during pregnancy help to improve emotional development in their children, and some research indicates that high stress during pregnancy can result in lower intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. Additionally, “When a pregnant woman is chronically stressed or experiences extreme stress, the baby may be exposed to unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which can impact the baby’s brain development” (Johnson, n.d., p. 3).
To reduce stress, consider adding some physical activity such as walking or yoga, which increase the release of positive endorphins. Pregnant women can also try writing in a journal, taking plenty of naps, reading to the baby, and pampering with a manicure or foot soak to relax after discussing with a physician if the activity is appropriate and safe.
When to Stimulate
Many developmental experts, researchers, and pediatricians agree that the benefits of actively stimulating babies while in the womb are evident immediately after birth with higher levels of alertness and awareness for finding familiar voices. Some experts agree that stimulation of any type should be limited to ten or fifteen minute sessions no more than two times per day.
Researchers, obstetricians, and pediatricians do agree, however, that pregnant women should get significant rest during the pregnancy in order for the baby to develop physically and to promote cognitive development.
“Babies Learn Language in the Womb.” (2013). Science Teacher 80(2), pp. 15-16.
Hobel, C.J., Goldstein, A., and Barrett, E.S. (2008). “Psychosocial Stress and Pregnancy Outcome.” Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology 51(2), pp. 333-348.
Johnson, K.C. (n.d.). The Maternal Substance Abuse and Child Development Project. “The effects of maternal stress and anxiety during pregnancy.” Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability, pp. 1-3.
Schiller, P. (2010). “Early brain development research review and update.” Brain Development Nov/Dec, pp. 26-30.
Weaver, J. (2011). “Social before birth: Twins first interact with each other as fetuses.” Scientific American. Retrieved May 19, 2013 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=social-before-birth.