New devices aim to help babies start learning before birth

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. Alexander, her first child, is now 1 1/2 years 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."

Interfering with nature

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 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 listen to the mother's heartbeat, voices and other noises of daily life. Makers of prenatal learning devices say 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."

Womb sounds

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.

"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. A spokeswoman for A Pea in the Pod says the national maternity chain sells 50 to 75 BabyPlus units per month, for about $150 apiece.

'Beautiful connection'

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. "It's hard for us because we're really seeking out further validation. 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. The company cites the University of Wisconsin study and articles about fetal habituation as evidence.

"It's this beautiful connection you can have," she says.