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What's It Like in the Womb?

What's it Like in the Womb?

WebMD Feature

Jesse Rapp wasn't born until May, but he and his parents were playing together long before that.

At night, Morgan often rested his head on Richele's pregnant belly, calling Jesse by name and feeling him wriggle in response. Sometimes the couple would play games. They'd gently poke first one side of Richele's abdomen, then the other, and watch as Jesse followed their touch by poking the same side back. They even teased him by poking the same side twice and laughed as he poked the "wrong" side back.

All their prenatal shenanigans paid off. In the recovery room, it seemed abundantly clear Jesse recognized his parents right away, turning his head in their direction when either one spoke. When he cried, he'd calm down instantly at the sound of their voices.

"It was so exciting because there was this trust and communication and a certain sense of bonding between us right away," says Morgan Rapp. "And for him, I think, it was reassuring because he had a sense already of where he was."

Thanks to ultrasound and other high-tech tools allowing a peek inside the womb, scientists have discovered a virtual sensory playground in which your baby is living. The fetus responds to your voice and other sounds in the room, reacts to light and dark shadows as you move from place to place, tumbles as you switch positions, even tastes sweet or spicy foods you've just eaten.

Experts believe these experiences cause physiological changes in your fetus' sensory systems that are necessary for normal brain growth. But the question is: Is more better?

There's already an array of tapes and gadgets on the market that help parents talk, sing or pipe classical music into the womb via little speakers on the uterus. One researcher has even developed a "curriculum" designed to speak to the fetus and supposedly boost intelligence, coordination and well-being.

Don't feel pressured to pull out the credit card just yet.

Most researchers studying fetal development say Mother Nature and the stimuli your baby naturally receives in the womb from your everyday conversations and activities are good enough to prepare your baby for the outside world. Study of how the human brain develops still is in its infancy, but there's no convincing scientific evidence that deliberate fetal acoustic stimulation, as it's called, influences intelligence, creativity or later development.

"Nature does a pretty good job of programming or presenting the necessary kinds of stimulation that a fetus should get at the appropriate times during development," says William Fifer, a developmental psychobiologist at Columbia University. In fact, experts worry that sticking speakers or headphones up to your abdomen could actually disrupt your baby's sleep patterns or the natural order of growth.

If there's any benefit to spending time talking to your baby or letting your favorite music filter naturally through the uterine wall, it's as much for the parents as for the baby, they say. "I think most of the purpose of talking to your baby is to give people a chance to sort of attach, to get used to the fact that this new creature is going to be a big part of your life," says Fifer.

Look Who's Listening

Your baby's hearing is intact by the third trimester, when sonograms show that a fetus will actually turn its head to respond to a sound. But studies have shown that your unborn child can hear sounds as early as 20 weeks and will be startled by loud noises at about 25 weeks. Very loud sounds can cause changes in your baby's heart rate and movements, and sometimes even cause them to empty their bladders.

Instead of the womb being the quiet place scientists once assumed, it is actually awash in sounds, particularly the whooshing of your blood and digestive system, the thumping of your heart and your voice, which sounds louder than it would transmitted through the air since it reverberates through the bones and fluids in your body.

Noises from outside your body are more muffled but they also make it through surprisingly clearly, says Robert Abrams, a fetal physiologist in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Florida. Low frequency sounds, such as those above middle C, tend to be more audible than higher frequency ones. Men's voices, for instance, come through clearer than women's, and music also is easily recognizable.

It appears the fetus can even hear specific speech patterns and intonations, although probably not recognize words themselves, Fifer says. Some studies have shown that babies after birth will recognize -- and be comforted by -- a story read repeatedly to them while in the womb or even by particular songs, like the theme from a television show watched regularly during pregnancy.



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