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What more can mothers do to prepare their unborn child for the outside world?

It may come as a surprise that some of the most important learning happens before we are born. The uterus is a place where a baby begins to collect ‘postcards’ from the outside world to develop an understanding of the environment they will soon be a part of. The maternal postcards are sent to the baby in the forms of sound, touch and taste, which indicate to the baby the language it will speak, the people that will protect them and the foods they will eat.

A baby can begin to hear at 18 weeks, which means they start to absorb the sounds such as their mothers voice, listen to music and pick up sounds in the environment around them. This is closely linked to what is commonly known as the ‘Mozart Effect’, coined by the French researcher Dr. Alfred Tomatis [1]. He believed that classical music could aid development and increase intelligence and reasoning skills. The sound waves travel from the outside world through amniotic fluids, vibrate the ear drum and are turned into signals that a baby’s brain understands. Despite the name, there is no specific type of music that helps in baby development, however music that mimics the mother’s heart rate of 60 beats per minute help create a harmonious and soothing environment in utero.

A 2013 study from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington found that unborn babies that listened to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy can demonstrate what they have heard. This cements the idea that mothers are the most valued influencer of developing the speech of their unborn child. The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units, and the baby begins to pick up on the tone and sounds, preparing them to learn the language they will speak, and improve brain development to be more susceptible to picking up a second language in future. This is especially relevant in the UAE, as a melting pot of different nationalities, most children speak two languages.

Other than improving the child’s ability to pick up languages, talking to your unborn child makes up the building blocks of the mother-baby relationship. Studies have shown that unborn babies prefer the sound of their mother’s voice, and will therefore respond more positively to them once born. Connecting with your baby, through touch or sound will also begin to shape and build their emotional and intuitive capabilities to sense their parents love. This is the start of building attachment and bonding with their parents. This has emotional and behavioural benefits that help a baby believe that the world is a safe place, and trust begins to develop.

Touching your bump is a key way to connect with your baby, researchers at the University of Dundee found that unborn babies responded to touch, and the closer the baby gets to being born, the more they moved around and showed more self-touch – such as touching their hand or face when their mothers were touching their bellies. This helps to develop and mature the unborn baby’s central nervous system and brain.

Research has shown that what a woman eats during pregnancy not only nourishes her baby, but shapes the food preferences later in life. Exposing your baby to different foods, even spicy food, will make your baby be more willing to try new tastes when he or she starts eating. There is also evidence that maternal undernutrition is linked to adult diseases such as coronary disease and diabetes, what’s called the Barker’s hypothesis or ‘fetal origin of adult diseases’. Adequate nutrition is hence very important during the entire course of your pregnancy as it may have impacts on your child’s health in future.

The following are a few tips from Dr. Gowri Ramanathan for prospective mothers to begin to prepare their unborn children for the outside world:

  • Talk to the baby every day, say goodnight and good morning. The voices the baby hears will be the ones he or she turns to when in the outside world, as well as improve their ability to pick up languages.
  • Avoid increased noise levels. Sound travels through the womb, and loud noises may result in stress, and possible damage to your baby’s hearing
  • Don’t worry if you get occasionally angry or upset. It’s natural to have ups and downs in pregnancy. There is no evidence that yelling or shouting can affect your unborn baby’s brain development. Don’t feel like a bad day will be absorbed by your baby. However, be aware that anxiety in mothers’ results in a higher chance of having anxious and colicky babies. Consider seeking help from your Family Doctor or Gynaecologist if you are uncertain of these effects.
  • Feel your bump, this has benefits for both the parent and the baby. For the baby, this will increase movement and for parents it will begin to mentally prepare you for the arrival.
  • Utilise technology, make sure you make your ultrasound appointments. The touch from the ultrasound acts as a massage for the baby, as well as helping the parents visualise and connect with their child.
  • Be adventurous with the food you eat, however be aware that there are certain foods you should avoid in pregnancy including uncooked seafood or undercooked beef or poultry. Speak to your doctor if you have any concerns on what you can and can’t eat.