Hearing and listening in the womb

Between 0 and 16 weeks

At this early stage the unborn baby is surrounded by sound, vibrations and motions which are 'felt' through the skin and skeletal systems.

A study by Graven and Browne (2008)[1] found that voices can be heard in the womb above the natural noises of the mother and other distorted noises from outside. Intonation patterns of pitch, stress and rhythm can be heard clearly as well as music.

There have been various studies into foetal listening. Shahidullah and Hepper (1992)[2] demonstrated that reactive listening begins at around 16 weeks. This is significant as the ear is not fully complete until 24 weeks. At 16 weeks the unborn baby is particularly receptive to its mother’s voice. This is because the vibrations that travel through her body to the womb are stronger than noises coming from outside the womb. At 20 – 24 weeks, the unborn baby can recognise the deeper tones of its father's voice.

Around 24 weeks

Babies develop preferences for music while in the womb. Fridman (2000)[3] found that the babies’ heart rates increased and that they moved around in rhythm to the music. Once born, the infant responds more to certain music. Fridman discovered that infants who had heard a song composed by their parents and played regularly before birth were able to imitate it by nine months old.

Other studies by Clements, (1977)[4] and Verny and Weintraub (1991/2000)[5] suggest that unborn babies are calmer when listening to music by Mozart and Vivaldi. When exposed to Beethoven, Brahms and rock music the unborn infant became disturbed and moved around more. Hepper (1988)[6] noticed that infant who had heard a soap opera theme tune regularly before birth recognised the tune once born.

From 24 weeks

Unborn babies respond to the rhythm of being read to. They will move about and kick. Studies by DeCasper and Fifer (1980)[7] and Kolata (1984)[8] found that infants who were read 'A Cat in a Hat' twice a day 6.5 weeks before birth would suck more if they heard 'A Cat in a Hat' read by their mother rather than an unfamiliar children’s poem 'The King, the Mice, and the Cheese', also read by the infants’ mothers.

The parents of the unborn child can stimulate their infant and develop early communication skills by introducing their child to music and reading right from the start. Infants respond well to music as the lilting melody combined with words, pitch, intonation and phrasing help the baby to remember. The parentese used by adults when talking to their new born infant imitates the same patterns found in music which infants respond to best.

Graven and Browne (2008)[9] state that headphones should never be used directly on the abdomen of a mother during pregnancy; this is because the frequencies can damage or destroy the hair cells in the unborn baby's ear.

The development of listening before birth is vital to the progression of listening and attention skills after birth.

1 Graven, SN and Browne JV (2008) 'Auditory development in the foetus and infant' Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews

2 Shahidullah S and Hepper PG (1992) 'Hearing in the foetus: pre-natal detection of deafness' International Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Studies 4(3/4):235-240

3 Fridman R (2000) 'The Maternal Womb: The first musical school for the baby' Journal of Pre-natal and Peri-natal Psychology and Health 15 (1) Fall 2000

4 Clements M (1977) 'Observations on certain aspects of neonatal behaviour in response to auditory stimuli' Paper presented to the 5th International congress of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynacology, Rome.

5 Verny TR and Weintraub P (1991/ 2000) 'Nurturing the unborn child: A nine month programme for soothing, stimulating and communicating with your baby' New York. Delacorte Press

6 Hepper PG (1998) 'Foetal 'soap' addiction' Lancet (June 11) 1347-1348

7 De Casper AJ and Fifer WP (1980) 'Of human bonding: Newborns prefer their mothers’ voices' [858KB] Science, 208, 1174-1176

8 Kolata GB (1984) 'Studying learning in the womb' Science. 20 July 1984. Vol 225 no 4659 pp302-303

9 Graven SN and Browne JV (2008) 'Auditory development in the foetus and infant' Newborn Infant and Nursing reviews

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