Boosting Baby's Brain Power in Utero
By Beth Weinhouse
The young woman sits in the chair, reading aloud from The Cat in the Hat
Soft classical music plays in the background as she rocks gently back
and forth, looking tenderly at her lap. A classic maternal scene...
except there's no baby. But she's not crazy. The baby-to-be is still
inside her womb, and the woman is hoping that by reading to her baby
and playing classical music she's developing its mind as well as its
body. But is she?
In the early and mid-1990s, studies at the
University of California-Irvine found that listening to Mozart sonatas
improved the spatial reasoning of college students. People immediately
jumped to the conclusion that classical music improves intelligence,
and the earlier people started listening to it, the better. First,
mothers were urged to play music for their toddlers, then their
newborns... then their fetuses. In fact, follow-up studies were unable
to confirm the experiments' results in adults or children.
Dutch researchers found that not only can late-term fetuses "hear"
sounds, but they can actually "learn." The researchers exposed the
fetus to a noise, then used ultrasound to see how it reacted. They
found the fetus reacted to the sound more quickly each time it heard
it. But there's no evidence that this early "learning" has any effect
on later intelligence, either.
So, is there anything that women can do during pregnancy to increase their babies' intelligence?
most important thing you can do to ensure a healthy baby and promote a
healthy brain and mental abilities, is to have the healthiest pregnancy
possible," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience
at The Chicago Medical School, and author of What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Years of Life
For those who want more specifics, here are a few suggestions:
- Avoid smoking, drinking and drugs All of these are known to impair neurological development.
- Gain enough weight for the baby to grow adequately
Obstetricians usually recommend women gain between 25 and 35 pounds.
Too much weight gain can lead to a large baby and a difficult delivery,
which can be risky to a new baby's brain. But not gaining enough weight
is dangerous, too, since lower birthweight babies tend to have smaller
heads and smaller brains, which has been linked with lower I.Q.
- Eat a well-balanced diet, and take a multivitamin, multimineral supplement Dr.
Eliot explains that there are 45 essential nutrients our bodies need,
"and the vast majority of these are known to be necessary for
- Iodine. Necessary for making thyroid hormone, which is
essential for brain development. (Most women in the U.S. get plenty of
iodine from iodized table salt.)
- Iron. If a woman doesn't have enough iron, she can't
make enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to the baby, affecting
brain and body growth. That's why obstetricians monitor so closely for
- B vitamins, including folic acid. Essential for fetal development, especially during the first month of gestation.
- Practice good hygiene to avoid viral infections "A lot
of viruses are very dangerous to the fetus even when the mother has no
symptoms," says Dr. Eliot. She suggests pregnant women wash their hands
frequently, avoid sharing food with toddlers and small children, and
report any symptoms to a doctor. Pregnant women are now advised to get
flu shots either before pregnancy or after the first trimester.
- Exercise This one's surprising, but there's evidence
that mothers who continue to work out during their pregnancy have
smarter babies. James F. Clapp, M.D., of Case Western Reserve
University in Cleveland, compared the children of pregnant women who
continued to exercise throughout their pregnancy with the children of
women who gave it up. He found that at five years of age, the children
of the exercisers scored significantly higher on tests of general
intelligence and language skills.
If you do all this and still
want to play classical music and read to your unborn baby, go right
ahead. "It can't do any harm," says Dr. Eliot. "And maybe it even
helps... in the sense that a mother who would take the trouble to read
to or play music to her stomach is probably very motivated to take good
care of her baby when it arrives!"