Devices Claim to Teach Babies Before Birth; Experts Unsure.

Suzanne Ling used a prenatal learning system while pregnant with her first child, Alexander.
Suzanne Ling used a prenatal learning system while pregnant with her first child, Alexander. (By Susan Biddle For The Post)
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By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

For the first half of her pregnancy, Potomac resident Suzanne Ling played classical music for her unborn child whenever she drove her car. She had heard about "the Mozart effect" from a friend, who swore that classical music soothed her baby both pre- and post-delivery.

Around week 20, Ling discovered BabyPlus, an egg-shaped device that she wore around her growing abdomen. The device played 16 "audio lessons" of heartbeatlike tones and promised to teach a fetus to recognize patterns and differentiate sounds. After baby Alexander was born, Ling was certain that he was especially engaged, aware and smart. She's convinced that his exposure to the in utero "lessons" will help him avoid two conditions she fears: autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Alexander, her first child, is now a year and a half old.

"At four months, his pediatrician said, 'I can tell you right away he's not autistic,' " Ling recalls. "Those were her exact words, because he's so engaged. His focus was remarkable for his age."

BabyPlus is one of a small number of "prenatal learning systems" being marketed to expectant parents these days. With such names as Lullabelly, Bellysonic and FirstSounds, they offer up everything from soothing tones to foreign languages as they promise anxious parents a better, calmer baby. Yet even as some parents pay upward of $100 for these devices, experts say there is no proof, no scientific studies, to support the claims.

"It probably won't do any good, and it can in fact be harmful," says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied fetal development for 20 years. But, she added, many people "don't understand that anyone can say anything they want on that label and it's not vetted anyplace and those products are not FDA-regulated in any way."

Measuring the effect of one of these devices is difficult. After all, how can you tell whether your baby would have turned out less smart or alert without a prenatal learning system? A recent study in the journal Child Development found that fetuses, starting at 30 weeks, can acclimate to sounds over time and that they develop memory at 34 weeks. But does that suggest that the learning proposed by BabyPlus and other devices can occur? Dutch obstetrician-gynecologist Jan G. Nijhuis, who conducted the study, hesitates to make a correlation. "How could that be proven?" he wrote in an e-mail. "It is questionable why one would interfere with the natural environment of the fetus, who is busy enough."

People agree on this much: Starting at 18 weeks, fetuses can hear, and they listen to the mother's heartbeat, voices and other noises of daily life. With that in mind, makers of prenatal learning devices think that the period between 18 and 40 weeks is an opportunity to give soon-to-be-born babies a head start. (The BabyPlus slogan? "Your womb . . . the perfect classroom.")

Yet DiPietro and others say evolution has already created the ideal environment for the complicated human brain to develop -- a mother's womb -- and messing with that system is silly . . . or possibly dangerous. The devices could damage a baby's hearing and disrupt its sleep, DiPietro says. "Fetuses are almost always asleep. Here, you are introducing a stimulus to them while they're asleep. This is akin to taking your newborn, and when they're asleep in a bassinet, blasting Mozart at them. That's exactly what you're doing with these devices."

Lisa Jarrett, whose company sells BabyPlus, says the device is set to a safe, un-adjustable volume 40 decibels quieter than the mother's heartbeat. Jarrett's own experience as a mother of seven and anecdotal evidence from other mothers have convinced her that prenatal learning occurs. Jarrett first heard about the idea in the early 1990s when her husband, a reproductive endocrinologist, showed her a magazine article. The author, Brent Logan, who had no medical or scientific training, studied 12 babies who had gone through an in utero "curriculum" he devised; he wrote that simple rhythms boosted their cognitive development.

Logan says his interest in prenatal learning was sparked around 1980 when he saw pregnant women using the then-new Sony Walkman to pipe in music to their unborn children. So, he did his own study of what kind of sounds came into the womb.

"We were astonished," he says. "You could hear everything outside -- speaking, television, radio, honking horns, dogs, but it was muffled, like listening underwater."

From this, he concluded that there was a way to provide specific stimulation to babies during gestation that would have a positive effect once they were born. He developed a version of the BabyPlus device, using cassettes to deliver 16 audio lessons of increasing complexity in rhythm and tone.

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