The cosy cocoon of the womb is not the quietest of places. A foetus begins to develop the ability to hear at about 18 weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And as well as the constant soundtrack of a mother’s heart, they can respond to sounds both inside and around their mother’s body.
After 24 weeks, babies actively listen and move in response to their mother’s voice, and their heartbeat has been shown to reduce at the sound of these maternal tones.
Research has also shown that babies can remember other sounds that they have been exposed to during pregnancy up to a year after birth.
In 2001, the University of Leicester’s Music Research Group followed a small group of mothers who played a single piece of music to their babies during the last three months of pregnancy.
Alexandra Lamont, from the university’s Music Research group, says: “We know that the foetus in the womb is able to hear fully only 20 weeks after conception. We have discovered that babies can remember and prefer music they heard before they were born, over 12 months later.”
Previously, it was thought that this effect lasted for only three to four months. “Babies who hear the same music that was played while in the womb fall asleep faster and sleep longer than babies who did not hear music,” she says.
“When you replay the same music to them it captures their attention and relaxes them,” says Dr Ashima Kakar, assistant manager for Aster Nurture, a UAE programme aimed at caring for mothers from the time they conceive until their child is five years old.
The programme runs Aster Melodia sessions at the Aster Hospital & Clinic, Dubai, for mothers and expectant mothers, to introduce them to techniques for bonding with their babies through music.
“Music plays a vital role in our lives,” she says. “It helps with relaxation, helps us smile and de-stress and is a great tool for bonding. Similarly in babies, it helps them to relax and stimulates the ear and brain to listen and understand music. Experts believe that prenatal sounds, including music, stimulate the growth of brain structures, thereby enhancing learning and development.”
Speech therapist and audiologist Andria Calicchio is due her first baby in March and believes playing music during pregnancy has a positive effect on bonding and development.
“My profession means I know the development of the ear system; it is one of the first organs to form. Babies can begin to hear early on and this is also how they can start learning language.
“I find music very soothing so I started playing it to my baby and letting her listen by placing one earphone in my ear and one on my belly. She will respond by moving to where the earphone is, and it feels almost like she is dancing.”
However, before you rush to download a host of classical concertos, while experts do agree that babies can recognise music that was played to them in the womb, research is still conflicted as to whether music – especially of the classical variety – has an impact on your baby’s intelligence.
People often refer in this instance to the famous "Mozart Effect" that was coined in 1991 by French researcher Dr Alfred Tomatis. He was an ear, nose and throat physician who believed that classical music could aid young development. His book Pourquoi Mozart? charted 30 years of work with children with learning disabilities and the impact on development of listening to music by Mozart. His alternative medicine theories were classed as the Tomatis Method, a form of sound therapy that involves listening to specially treated high-frequency Mozart music for a set number of hours and weeks.
In 1993, a study published on the Mozart Effect in the journal Science also revealed that teenagers who listened to Mozart performed better in tests than those who listened to something else or no music at all.
While the study only involved 36 students and had nothing to do with pregnant women or babies, it spurred crèches across the United States into playing classical music in the belief it would make children smarter. In 1998 Georgia governor Zell Miller also ordered that all mothers of newborns in the state be given classical music CDs.
Further probing into the Mozart Effect phenomenon led experimental psychologist Frances Rauscher, a former concert cellist, to conduct studies to investigate the effect of musical stimuli on the foetal rat brain. She found that rats that listened to Mozart before and after birth learned to navigate mazes faster and made fewer mistakes than their counterparts who only listened to white noise.
So, will it up your child’s IQ if you play classical music to them while in utero? Scientists can’t yet say for sure.
Lisa Irwin, founder and director of Music Monkeys, which runs regular music classes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for mums and babies, and toddlers up to four years old, says: “Research does suggest that the earlier babies are introduced to music the bigger the impact it can have on speech and language development.
“That said, I don’t see anything that says if you play music to an unborn child it will make him or her smarter. There is a connection made between music and their outside environment, for example playing calm classical or lullaby music at bedtime may help with a bedtime routine once the baby is born.
“Music Monkeys offers Baby Monkey classes starting from three months as we know from extensive studies that this is a key developmental age leading into toddler years.”
So while there is no firm evidence to support the fact that playing classical or relaxing music to your baby in the womb can guarantee better test scores in later life, it is clear that it is a great way for expectant mothers to unwind and take time to connect with their babies.
“Scientists have noticed a difference in the personality of babies born to mothers who were stressed during their pregnancy compared with those who had a happy pregnancy,” says Kakar. “We believe music can definitely help to de-stress the pregnant mother, which in turn affects the baby. A happy mother delivers a happy baby.”
The music of life – before and after birth
Tried and tested: mums share their musical experiences:
• I played Starboy by The Weeknd when my little one was inside. Since day one this song has been able to calm him straight away. Two months on, it still works.
Kiren Sahota, JBR
• When I was seven months pregnant my favourite band, Florence and the Machine, released a new album and I listened to it in my car twice a day every day before I had my baby. After my son was born, I noticed that whenever I put the album on, he would become more alert but at the same time peaceful. It was amazing and a very noticeable reaction to familiarity.
Lisa Sartori, The Springs
• I did it with my son who is now five months. I still use Mongan Method hypnobirthing music to put him to bed. When he hears it, his eyes start to close.
Charlotte Louise Crabtree Correia, Mirdif
• I played a lot of music and continued this once my baby was born. It had, and still has, a calming effect on him. Babies can hear in the womb and I believe that if you surround them with the same sounds once they enter the world, it makes them feel more secure.
Marie-Inez Umultan, Umm Suqeim
• I played a variety of music including classical, movie theme tunes and hypnobirthing music. The baby enjoyed the classical musical and used to kick when I played the Indiana Jones music. I played hypnobirthing music to help me sleep and now I use it to settle the baby when he's restless.
Katie Dower, Mushriff, Abu Dhabi
• During my pregnancy, I played and sang the Gayatri Mantra to my daughter, and towards the end of my pregnancy, she would respond with little kicks. Since birth, it has calmed her and it always helps her off to sleep.
Carol Jones, Arabian Ranches