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Can A Fetus Learn?

Prenatal education. It’s almost the punchline of the joke about parents obsessed with giving their kids “every advantage”. You’ve probably seen the products in the stores, claiming playing music makes babies smarter by stimulating their brains.  A search for “prenatal music” presented numerous different contraptions designed to deliver sounds directly to the belly for relaxation or stimulation purposes.  Can you really teach a growing fetus?

Linda Geddes at Bumpology explores the idea in her column at the New Scientist. As you might expect, scientists are skeptical, not only of the idea that music can help babies in any way, but that babies are actually capable of learning and retaining information for the long term.

Babies have shown memory about somet things—taste, for example, as they seem to recognize flavors that showed up in the amniotic fluid. And we know they hear sound from about 22 weeks. But does that mean sound can make a lasting impact?

Not that we can tell, according to the scientists Geddes interviewed. They are particularly discouraging of parents trying to increase fetal stimulation with artificial means. “There are many claims but as yet no work has been published of peer-reviewed scientific standard to demonstrate they actually have an effect,” says Peter Hepper, a fetal scientist in the UK. “The fetus receives all the stimulation it needs.”

It does appear that after about 34 weeks, there is some musical memory retention. One way that prenatal exposure to music can be helpful to babies and parents alike: It’s possible that your baby might remember songs played before birth and these might help relax him after he’s born. So choose your playlist accordingly: today’s hits could be tomorrow’s lullabies.

photo: Micah Taylor/flickr

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