October 5, 2009 in Features

Opinions differ on devices to help babies start learning before birth

Rachel Saslow Washington Post
 
The Washington Post photo

Suzanne Ling wore BabyPlus, a device that promises to teach a fetus to recognize patterns and differentiate sounds, around her abdomen while pregnant with her son, Alexander, now 1. The two are shown at home in Potomac, Md. The Washington Post
(Full-size photo)

For the first half of her pregnancy, 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.

“At four months, his pediatrician said, ‘I can tell you right away he’s not autistic,’ ” Ling recalls of her first-born, who’s now 1 ½ years old. “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. 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.

Still, Dutch obstetrician-gynecologist Jan Nijhuis, who conducted the study, hesitates to make a correlation between that and learning in the womb.

“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.”

Makers of prenatal learning devices say that the period between 18 weeks, when fetuses begin to hear outside noises, and 40 weeks is an opportunity to give soon-to-be-born babies a head start. (The BabyPlus slogan: “Your womb … the perfect classroom.”)

But 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,” he says. “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.”

Lisa Jarrett, whose company sells BabyPlus, says the device is set to a safe, unadjustable 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.

She 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.

“They’re much more ready for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ or ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ than they would be,” Logan says.

Jarrett, who once worked at an in-vitro fertilization laboratory, sent away for the cassette tapes when she got pregnant with her first child and used them with subsequent ones.

They were all calm babies, good nursers and hit their pediatric milestones early, she says: “The way they learned was efficient.”

So she licensed the rights for BabyPlus, which is now sold in more than 60 countries. She expects to move 19,000 units this year.

Jarrett acknowledges that the effects provided by BabyPlus have not been proven, but she says a clinical trial – funded in part by her company’s new nonprofit arm and set to start in November – will look at prenatal auditory stimuli. She expects it to support the theories behind her device.

“So-to-speak ‘experts’ don’t have any clinical trials, either, to defend that a prenatal curriculum might not be beneficial,” she says.

“We know that we’re an entirely new niche, and it’s going to be legitimized in time. It just takes time.”

Developers of the strap-on Ritmo audio belt have the same conviction.

The system was spawned in part by interest in the controversial “Mozart effect,” which was coined in 1993 after a University of Wisconsin psychologist published a study suggesting that college students performed better on parts of an IQ test after listening to classical music.

Ritmo allows expectant mothers to play music (or anything else) to their growing fetus. Retailing for $149, the elastic belt has a palm-size “controller hub” that plugs into four built-in speakers and an iPod or other MP3 player (not included). Mom can listen along through headphones.

According to Mercy D’silva, chief sales officer for the company producing Ritmo, the device allows parents to acclimate their babies in utero to any sounds – foreign languages, classical music – chosen by the parents.

“It’s this beautiful connection you can have,” she says.

An ad in the back of a parenting magazine persuaded Paula Cross and her husband, of Kensington, Md., to try prenatal learning. She used the BabyPlus when she was pregnant with daughter Chelsie, now 15 months old.

The couple called it the “baby boom boom” because of its pulsing noise, which accompanied Cross on her morning commute to work and lulled her to sleep at night during pregnancy.

“There’s such a focus on kids achieving at a very young age,” Cross says. “I teach middle school in Montgomery County, and they focus from kindergarten on up how to get into college. I’ll take any step to get ahead of the game to help her learn basic fundamentals, to succeed and be the best she can be.”

Did the device work?

“The proof is in the pudding,” says Cross, who believes her daughter is charismatic, well adjusted and smart. She plans to use BabyPlus during any future pregnancies.

Jessica Boger, a lawyer in Washington, came to a very different conclusion after researching prenatal learning online and in books, deciding that the science didn’t hold up. She worries about interfering with her unborn baby’s already complex process of forming neural connections.

“We all want our children to be smart and successful and to get a head start, but I think a lot of companies feed off our insecurities about that,” she says.

As Loveland, the OB-GYN, puts it: “Do we really need our fetuses to be in a classroom, or is it enough for them just to be fetuses? Can’t we just appreciate that what nature is doing is so brilliant and so enormous that it’s enough?

“I do worry that this stress will rob people of the joy of being pregnant. And that’s a shame.”


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