A blog by Dr Lin Day

Music and Prenatal Bonding

Research shows that exposing the foetus to music early on can make a dramatic difference to the development of the prenatal brain and the bonding process before and after the birth.

At what week of gestation does a baby start to hear?

The structural parts of the ear develop in the first 20 weeks of gestation. The auditory part of the brain becomes functional at about 25 weeks gestation (second trimester) and continues to develop up to 6 months after the birth. During the second trimester, the foetus responds with rhythmic swimming or kicking movements to sounds from the outside environment. From 32 weeks gestation, the foetus responds to the mother’s voice and to the pitch and pattern of a simple melody. In the last trimester, the auditory pathways become increasing refined and the foetus responds with sensitivity to new sounds and rhythms. At full-term, the sense of hearing is remarkably well developed, which enables the baby to process auditory information from the moment of birth.

What sort of music should you play to your unborn baby?

During early pregnancy, low sounds with pitch or frequency around middle C, such as the mother’s voice and classical music penetrate the womb more easily than higher frequencies. At 30 to 40 weeks’ gestation, the baby’s hearing will be fine-tuned to distinguish between sounds that vary in frequency from rock and roll music, to pop, jazz and swing. The choice of music depends entirely on the mother’s taste, but excessively loud noises can induce hearing loss and other health effects.

Note: during pregnancy, head phones must never be placed on the mother’s abdomen. Sound at 60 dB (sound pressure measured in decibels) will be heard by the foetus at 120 dB. Exposure at this level will destroy hair cells in the inner ear and significantly interfere with auditory development.

Do babies recognise certain tunes?

Foetal studies show that the theme tune of a TV programme played regularly during pregnancy reinforces functional memory. When played after the birth, babies stop crying, open their eyes and relax their muscles. Their heart rate also decreases on hearing the same tune. This is why white noise, which imitates the ‘shish’ sound that the foetus hears constantly in the womb, is particularly comforting to the newborn.

The earliest response to a familiar tune has been demonstrated at 22-23 weeks of gestational age and seems to occur earlier in females than in males. At 37 weeks of gestation, the foetus shows a significant increase in movements on hearing a familiar tune. However, when exposed to a strange voice, rhythm or tone, the foetal heartbeat increases. This indicates that learning and memory ability occurs before birth.

How does playing music benefit your unborn baby? 

Recent research demonstrates that musical capabilities are found in infants who have been exposed to music during foetal life. When a tune is played regularly, the foetus forms a memory of the sound patterns that echo through the womb, which may be retained for several weeks after the birth. Classical music, lullabies and songs that mimic the mother’s heart rate of 60 beats per second, will have an immediate and calming effect on the foetus. Music with a strong beat may speed up the baby’s heart rate and kicking may become more vigorous. As suggested above, excessively loud external noises should be avoided since these can be detrimental to the baby’s hearing.

Are there any benefits for the mother?

Elevated levels of stress during pregnancy are associated with maternal complications such as pre-eclampsia (pregnancy induced hypertension), premature birth and sleep disorders. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that music has a powerful anti-stress effect on the mother. Slow paced notes can elevate mood, reduce high blood pressure and make the process of labour a more enjoyable experience. Listening to a soothing piece of music can provide an opportunity for the mother to unwind and put her feet up, which also has a positive effect on the foetus. When the mother is calm and relaxed, the rhythmic motion of her breathing slows down foetal heart rate and reduces any potentially harmful effects to the baby’s brain and overall development.

How can music help a mum bond with her unborn baby?

Early listening to music can create an environment in which the mother and her unborn baby feel relaxed and peaceful together. Rocking or swaying to music for example, can synchronise maternal and foetal movements and promote the development of an attachment bond. If the mother talks, sings or reads to her baby, the foetus will turn in the direction of her voice. Turn-taking is a fundamental advancement in communication between the mother and her unborn baby. Such early interaction plays a vital role in the bonding process when mother and baby meet for the first time.

Further reading

Day RL (2008) Babies are so clever. Early Years Educator 9 (9): 24-26.