How music affects your baby’s brain: Mini Parenting Master Class

Transcript of “How music affects your baby’s brain: Mini Parenting Master Class” video

Did you know a lullaby will make your baby calmer because it slows down her heart?

Music is the most important thing in our life. Is your baby getting enough music?

My name is Dr. Ibrahim Baltagi and this is my Mini Parenting Master Class on how music affects your baby’s brain.

What effect does music have on babies in the womb?

It is proven that music has a role in brain development before birth.

Listening to music during pregnancy will not only have a soothing and uplifting effect on the pregnant woman, but also a positive influence on the unborn baby.

Around 16─18 weeks of pregnancy, the little one hears its very first sound.

By 24 weeks, the little ears start to develop rapidly and babies have been shown to turn their heads in response to voices and noise in the last few months of pregnancy, an unborn baby can recognize her mother’s voice, her native language, word patterns and rhymes.

What music should a pregnant mother listen to?

In the third trimester, the baby will be definitely able to hear the music you play. Classical music, gentle sounds like lullabies, nice melodies that inspire happiness all are designed to be soothing.

How can music help develop a young child’s brain?

Music ignites all areas of child development and skills for school readiness, particularly in the areas of language acquisition and reading skills.

Learning to play a musical instrument can improve mathematical learning, and even increases school scores.

How can you use music to soothe your baby to help her sleep?

Music inspires emotions, so music can be a popular recommendation to soothe the little one peacefully. And it is a welcome addition to the baby’s sleep routine.

The music must be soft, soothing, relaxing, to create a calm atmosphere to nurture their sleeping patterns.

A familiar tune or music or song becomes like a session of music therapy. Slow, soft, repetitive music will actually slow down the heartbeat and allows for calmer and deeper breathing.

Don’t underestimate the power of the mother, father or any caregiver’s voice while singing. Her voice is familiar and the rhythm is calming.

Where do lullabies come from?

The English word “lullaby” is thought to come from the “lala” or “lulu” sounds made by mothers or nurses to calm children.

“Bye” is another lulling sound, or a term to say “goodnight”. A lullaby, or so-called cradle song, has a story to soothe babies and small children to sleep.

Lullabies are found in every culture and sung in every language. Brahms’ Lullaby  is perhaps the most well-known and easily recognizable of the cradle songs.

What are the best musical instruments for toddlers?

There are many ways in which you can create music with your child for free. Vocal chords are the only innate instruments that are created in a human being.

There are other instruments that we can use, which is percussion like clapping, snapping, stomping and patting on your thighs.

Also, there is  tons of stuff around your home such as if you get a wooden spoon and play it on a pot, you can play it with your child.

The best musical instruments you can buy for your children would include toy drum, shakers or rattles, glockenspiel, xylophones, maracas.

Can music help your child socialize?

There’s something about listening to music or playing it with other people that brings its own social buzz, making you feel connected to those around you.

Music at early ages helps children express themselves and share feelings. Even at an early age, they can sway, bounce, move their hands in response to music they hear.

They can even make up their own songs. They learn to laugh, repeat words and it encourages them to use these words and memorize them.

We have learned about several mechanisms through which music impacts our ability to connect with one another by impacting brain circuits involved in empathy, trust and cooperation, perhaps explaining how it has survived in every culture of the world.

Music is present in our lives, in so many aspects. At home, music can become part of our everyday experiences.

From birth, parents use music to calm and soothe children, to express their love, joy, and to engage and interact.

Parents can build on these natural instincts by learning how music can impact child development, improve social skills, and benefits kids of all ages.

My advice is to start music with your children as early as possible.

Dr. Ibrahim H. Baltagi is a lecturer at the Lebanese American University and serves as the head of the music program at the Lebanese International University. He has published a series of music books for children.

— Update: 30-12-2022 — found an additional article Will Playing Music During Pregnancy Make Your Baby Smarter? from the website for the keyword music and pregnancy.

When J. Paul Neeley's wife was pregnant with their now two and a half year old daughter, the cellist would host private evening concerts in the couple's living room. “I would play the Bach cello suites while my wife would sit back and try to relax,” says Neeley, a U.S. citizen currently living in London, England. “In the later months before the birth we would sometimes notice kicking from the baby seemingly recognizing music at these concerts.”

After birth, the same music appeared to calm the baby, keep her focused and help her get to sleep. Now, their daughter appears to excel in all things related to music. “She has a great sense of time and very good pitch,” Neeley says. “She can also identify the emotion or mood of the music. Her dancing and facial expressions will mirror that feeling.”

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The couple has hosted musical performances for their now one-month-old, as well, finding that both children appear to benefit from the early exposure to music. “I'm sure these are musical developmental milestones that most children go through, but we definitely feel these have been reached very early when compared to her peers,” he says of his eldest child. “It has brought us a lot of joy to see [our children] engaging with and enjoying the music.

As parents look to give their children any boost they can in early life, the prospect that music can provide an array of developmental benefits — like boosting a child's IQ — is appealing. However, so far, researchers have not actually proven this to be true.

The Mozart Effect

The so-called “Mozart effect” dates back to an early 1990s claim, which stated that exposure to the artist's music enhanced spatial reasoning skills for a period after listening. Studies in animals appear promising: Chicks and rats exposed to music before birth have shown increased ability to navigate mazes. Scientists credit this exposure for generating new neurons in the brain's memory-focused hippocampus. Yet, for now, experts hesitate to make any similar claims about humans.

“Babies certainly do react to sounds; they react to music so we know that that occurs,” says Thomas Dardarian, an osteopathic physician and OB-GYN at Main Line Women’s Health Care Associates in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. “But because of compound variables there’s nothing proven in any study that shows [parents] exposing their babies to classical music in utero helps with IQ [or] helps with music ability.”

In Neeley's case, his daughter's musical talents could stem from early exposure or they could simply be tied to her genes given her father's background, Dardarian suggests.  “It certainly doesn't hurt — by any stretch of the imagination — to expose your baby to music in utero,” he adds. “It might stimulate a desire within them through the music that will develop and encourage them.”

Babies start to hear at about 24 weeks gestation. They can pick up their parents' voices and other sounds in the same way we hear underwater. And deeper baritone voices typically travel better, at least in the early stages, doctors say.

Start 'Em Early

So is one type of music better than any other? While classical music is the typical default used in studies, experts don't think it should really make too much of a difference.

Osteopathic physician and OB-GYN Octavia Cannon, co-owner of Arboretum Obstetrics and Gynecology in Charlotte, North Carolina, says any music that has repetition and varied pitch should be effective, though musical taste would be more likely to develop after birth. “I can specifically remember sitting next to one of my patients in church when she was pregnant with twins,” Cannon says. “Those babies started jumping up and down like crazy as soon as the drummer started playing and the choir began singing gospel music!”

Dardarian agrees that parents shouldn't be too worried about what type of music to play. “You're not going to create an ADHD baby by playing rock 'n' roll,” he adds.

Cannon says she often tells her patients to play music for their babies while pregnant and suggests they play music when they want to get the baby to move. Beyond that, if nothing else, listening to music should benefit the mother because it lowers stress and lower stress benefits the baby as well. “There's definitely integration between maternal wellbeing and fetal wellbeing,” says Dardarian. “If mom wants to come home from work and listen to soothing music, it's going to be a benefit to both her and the baby.”

— Update: 30-12-2022 — found an additional article Can babies listen to music in the womb? from the website for the keyword music and pregnancy.

Starting in the second trimester, around 23 weeks, your baby will be able to hear the music you’re listening to. Find out how music affects your baby’s hearing development – and how to play it safely for babies in the womb.

Does music affect my baby’s brain development in the womb?

Possibly. Sounds in general – including music, voices, and the gentle gurgle of your stomach and beating of your heart – all contribute to the development of your baby’s hearing, which involves neural connections and processing in the brain. Evidence suggests sounds from the environment also help babies’ memory and emotions develop.

That doesn’t mean music is essential to hearing and brain development before birth, it’s just one kind of sound that may contribute. Just being in your womb and around the sounds of your various organs gives your baby plenty to listen to. Your voice is another source of sound for your baby, because it reverberates through your body when you speak.

Some studies indicate that fetuses can hear and react to sound by moving. But no one really knows what those movements mean because experts can’t observe an unborn baby as easily as a baby that has already been born.

How to play music for your baby in the womb

Your best option is to play music at a modest volume (about the level of a normal conversation) as you go about your day. Or you can sing songs or hum melodies to your baby yourself.

Don’t place ear buds or headphones directly on your belly. The sound will amplify as it travels through the amniotic fluid to your baby and could reach dangerous levels that damage your baby’s delicate ears.

And don’t bother buying a “music belt” for playing music to your baby. One study determined these aren’t effective, and that singing to your baby is probably a much more effective way of supporting your baby’s hearing development through music.

There’s some evidence that long-term exposure (like 8 hours a day, every day) to very loud noise while you’re pregnant can damage your baby’s hearing. It’s best to avoid routinely playing music at a loud volume (about 115 dB, or as loud as a chainsaw) while pregnant. Skip loud events such as rock concerts once you’re in the second trimester.

When playing music, don’t turn the volume any higher than 65 decibels (dB) – about as loud as background music at the store – because that may hurt or startle your baby. And if you’re listening to music for prolonged periods, it’s best to keep the volume below 50 dB (the level of a quiet conversation).

Decibel levels of common sounds are:

  • 30 dB Soft whisper
  • 40 dB Refrigerator hum
  • 60 dB Normal conversation, air conditioner
  • 70 dB Washing machine, dishwasher
  • 80 – 85 dB City traffic (from inside the car), gas-powered leaf blower
  • 94 – 110 dB Sporting events
  • 95 – 115 dB Rock concert
  • 110 – 129 dB Sirens
  • 140 – 160 dB Fireworks

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Does playing music make my baby smarter?

No research supports the idea that playing music when your baby is in the womb makes them smarter.

One small study found that babies whose parents played a melodic version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star repeatedly during the third trimester recognized the melody for several months after they were born. But becoming familiar with a melody isn’t the same as developing smarts.

Studies of older children do show that music can help with math and spatial reasoning skills (the ability to understand three-dimensional space). Some experts think that if music has this profound effect on older kids, babies and even fetuses may benefit from it the same way. But there isn’t evidence to support this.

The bottom line: It’s wonderful to play music or sing to your baby while you’re pregnant, but don’t expect it to make your baby smarter – there’s no evidence to support that.

And if you don’t play music to your baby in the womb, that’s fine too. Your baby’s ears and brain will get plenty of stimulation from other types of sounds in your body and the everyday environment.

— Update: 30-12-2022 — found an additional article How do babies respond to music in the womb? from the website for the keyword music and pregnancy.

© 2021 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Music and pregnancy

Music in the womb? It’s become an almost cartoonish cliché of modern pregnancy — a pregnant mother-to-be playing tunes for her unborn baby.

But is this really a thing? Do fetuses actually respond to music? Will they remember any of it later? The short answer is yes.

In the last trimester of pregnancy, babies become increasingly capable of hearing a range of musical tones, and studies confirm that babies react — in the womb — to the sounds they hear. Moreover, if a late-term fetus “overhears” the same melody again and again, it will likely recognize this tune later — when it hears the music as a newborn.

Do such prenatal experiences make children smarter? Should parents make a special effort to expose their babies to music through high-tech gadgets?

There’s no evidence for that, and in fact experts urge parents to avoid certain kinds of music exposure.

For example, they advise against placing earphones or other audio devices directly onto a pregnant woman’s belly. They also warn mothers-to-be to avoid exposing their bodies to loud, deep, booming noises, or to decibel levels that pose a risk to their own hearing.

But the research helps us appreciate that our babies are engaging with the world long before birth. And it should encourage parents to share musical experiences with their babies — both before and after pregnancy.

Here are the details.

At what point during pregnancy can a baby hear music in the womb?

A baby’s sense of hearing doesn’t go “online” all at once. It happens in steps, and every baby develops at his or her own pace.  And of course sounds get muffled in the womb — especially sounds at higher frequencies.

So it isn’t a straightforward question to answer — the age at which your baby will be able to hear your favorite tune.  

We know that babies can hear some sounds during the second trimester of pregnancy, and by 25 weeks gestation, approximately half of all fetuses are responsive to tones in the range of 100-500 Hz — a range that overlaps with adult speech (Hepper and Shahidullah 1994). So babies might be capable of hearing music — or at least some fragmentary elements of music — that also fall into this range.

But for better listening abilities, we have to wait until babies are bit older — around 30 weeks or more.

For instance, most babies don’t respond to tones as high as 1000 Hz (which is just a smidge lower than “high C” on a keyboard) until at least 30 weeks gestation  (Hepper and Shahidullah 1994).

And when researchers presented fetuses with an entire lullaby — as opposed to a few, isolated tones — they found evidence that babies begin paying more attention to music at around 33 weeks gestation (Kisilevsky et al 2004).

Can music be too loud for a baby in the womb?

It’s possible, so we need to be mindful of the potential for harm. For decades, medical experts have recommended the same, cautious approach to prenatal sound exposure (Graven 2000; Kruger et al 2021):

  • Don’t attach earphones or any other sound production devices to a pregnant belly.
  • Avoid environments where noise levels put your own hearing at risk.
  • If you’re listening to lower-frequency sounds, avoid sustained volumes over 65 decibels. A mother’s body muffles the intensity of sound that the baby hears, but not as effectively when sounds are lower or deeper. Music with a loud, pulsing bass line could be hazardous.

How do fetuses respond to music?

Music and pregnancy

That’s a good question. On a superficial level, we know that babies notice when sound — voices or music — filters into the womb. Their heart rates change, and they tend to move around more (e.g., Kisilevsky  et al 2010; Gerhard and Abrams 2000; Arabin and Riedewald 1992).

But are babies noticing the contours of music? Are they sensitive to patterns? The specific sequence of notes that they hear?

There’s reason to think so, because studies suggest that newborns may remember music they heard during pregnancy.

Evidence that babies can recognize music they heard during gestation

Music and pregnancy

If a pregnant woman listens to the same melody — again and again — it presents a possibility. Might her fetus become familiar with the music? So much so that the baby will be capable recognizing the tune later — after childbirth?

Decades ago, Peter Hepper tested the idea by observing the responses of newborns to a particular television show theme song.

Some of the babies had gestated with mothers who were fans of the TV program. As fetuses, these babies had heard the theme song many times.

And other babies? Their moms hadn’t watched the show during pregnancy. The theme song was totally unfamiliar to them.

So Hepper played the tune to newborns, and found evidence for fetal memory.

The babies who had “overhead” the theme song during gestation became more alert. Their heart rates slowed, and they stopped moving around.

This reaction was absent when the same infants listened to other, unfamiliar melodies. And it was also absent among the babies who hadn’t been exposed to the TV theme during pregnancy (Hepper 1998).

Intrigued, Hepper conducted a follow-up study, where he monitored fetuses directly via ultrasound.

Once again, he tested babies’ responses to the same TV theme song, and once again, he found a difference. It wasn’t apparent among young fetuses (babies at 30 weeks gestation). But by 37 weeks gestation, infants were behaving differently when they heard familiar (as opposed to unfamiliar) music (Hepper 1991).

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Is this conclusive? Not exactly. The studies were small, making it hard to rule out chance effects. But Hepper’s work inspired other research — and the results support the idea that fetuses can learn about music.

For example, in a controlled experiment, researchers created and recorded a unique piano melody, and then assigned pregnant women to play it back to their fetuses, starting at 35 weeks gestation.

The fetuses heard the music twice daily for three weeks only. Then it stopped, with no further music sessions until four weeks after the babies were born.

And that’s when the babies — 25 infants in total — faced the big test: They were brought to a laboratory, where they heard the melody once again. In addition, they listened to a brand-new piece, another piano melody they had never encountered before.

What happened? The researchers monitored the babies’ heart rates, and compared these with the heart rates of 25 infants in a control group. And the contrast was pretty dramatic.

Babies in both groups tended to experience a momentary slow-down in heart rate as they listened to music. But the effect was much larger for infants who listened to music they had heard previously, during gestation (Granier-Deferre et al 2011).

It was as if they recognized the old, “prenatal” music, and found it to be especially calming.

What about responses in the brain?

When babies listen to music, it doesn’t just affect their heart rates. It also stimulates brain activity, and researchers can track changes in this activity by using event-related potentials (ERPs) – small changes in voltage that can be detected by attaching electrodes to an infant’s scalp.

So Eino Partanen and his colleagues used this approach to look for neural differences in the way that newborns respond to music. Do their brains react differently if they hear music they encountered during gestation?

Partanen’s team began their study by asking a dozen pregnant women to follow a specific music-listening regimen, starting at 29 weeks gestation.

Once per day, 5 times per week, the mothers-to-be listened to a specially-prepared, keyboard rendition of the song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

The babies ended up hearing this tune a lot. Anywhere between 138 and 192 times!

But the prenatal music “lessons” ended immediately before childbirth. And then, as newborns, the babies heard the tune once again — the first time since emerging from the womb.

The researchers recorded the infants’ ERPs as they listened. And they did the same for infants in a control group — newborns who hadn’t been through the special, prenatal regimen.

And the outcome?

There was a clear difference between groups. The babies who had experienced prenatal “training” showed a stronger, more dramatic change in brain activity while listening to the familiar tune.

Moreover, it was a difference that lasted. The researchers tested the infants again at 4 months postpartum, and found that babies with prenatal experience of “Twinkle, Twinkle” continued to show a stronger neural response to it (Partanen et al 2013).

So does listening to music in the womb make babies smarter?

In fact, as I write this, there is no consensus among researchers that prenatal music delivers long-term benefits to babies.

For example, when researchers have examined trends across studies, they haven’t found that prenatal “music therapy” delivers clinically meaningful health benefits to infants (He et al 2021).

Listening to music can reduce stress for the mother, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not yet clear if babies experience any special health effects as the result of being exposed to music in the womb.

Nevertheless, we’ve got reason to think that unborn babies are stimulated by music, and can become familiar with certain tunes. That should encourage us to share music with our unborn infants. To sing. To make music with friends. To listen to music the “old-fashioned” way — by filling the the air with it. Not by piping music into earphones.

And this research should inspire us to regard newborns with additional respect. They aren’t mere “survival machines,” with nothing in their heads but instinctive programming to eat or cry.

On the contrary, they have been paying attention to the social world — the social world of sound — for many weeks before birth. And by the time they meet us face to face, they are ready — and eager — to learn more.

More reading

Want to know what else babies are learning before birth? Check out my Parenting Science article, “Prenatal learning: Do pregnancy foods affect babies’ eating habits?”

And for more information about the remarkable abilities of newborns, see these Parenting Science articles:

“The social world of newborns: Why babies are born to learn from our sensitive, loving care”

“Newborn cognitive development: What are babies thinking and learning?

“The newborn senses: What can babies feel, see, hear, smell, and taste?”

References: Music in the womb

Arabin B and Riedewald S. 1992. An attempt to quantify characteristics of behavioral states Am J Perinatol 9: 115-119

Gerhardt KJ, Abrams RM. 2000. Fetal exposures to sound and vibroacoustic stimulation. J Perinatol. 20(8 Pt 2):S21-30.

Granier-Deferre C, Bassereau S, Ribeiro A, Jacquet AY, Decasper AJ. 2011. A melodic contour repeatedly experienced by human near-term fetuses elicits a profound cardiac reaction one month after birth. PLoS One. 6(2):e17304.

Graven SN. 2000. Sound and the developing infant in the NICU: conclusions and recommendations for care. J Perinatol. 20(8 Pt 2):S88-93.

He H, Huang J, Zhao X, Li Z. 2021. The effect of prenatal music therapy on fetal and neonatal status: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 60:102756.

Hepper PG. 1988. Fetal “soap” addiction. Lancet 1(8598):1347-8.

Hepper 1991. An Examination of Fetal Learning Before and After Birth. Irish Journal of Psychology 12: 95-107.

Hepper PG and Shahidullah BS. 1994. Development of fetal hearing. Archives of disease in childhood-fetal and neonatal edition 71: F81-F87

James DK, Spencer CJ, Stepsis BW. 2002. Fetal learning: A prospective randomized controlled study. Ultrasound Obstet. Gynecol. 20:431–438.

Kisilevsky BS and Hains SMJ. 2010. Exploring the relationship between fetal heart rate and cognition. Infant Child. Dev. 19:60–75.

Kisilevsky S, Hains SM, Jacquet AY, Granier-Deferre C, Lecanuet JP.  2004. Maturation of fetal responses to music. Dev Sci. 7(5):550-9.

Krueger C, Horesh E, Crossland BA. 2012. Safe sound exposure in the fetus and preterm infant. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 41(2):166-170.

Partanen E, Kujala T, Tervaniemi M, Huotilainen M. 2013. Prenatal music exposure induces long-term neural effects. PLoS One. 8(10):e78946.

Content of “How do babies respond to music in the womb” last modified 8/21

Title image of pregnant woman at piano by hanamirae / istock

image of ultrasound by Mikail Damkier / shuttestock

image of newborn gazing at mother by chomplearn / shutterstock


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