If you are currently pregnant, congratulations! You may have already begun looking at information on prenatal development and learning what exactly your little boy or girl is doing inside of you. In this post I will describe how your unborn baby grows in his or her ability to hear, listen, learn, and remember music, and how these experiences can impact development.

Let’s start do a quick overview of prenatal auditory development starting from day one. As an embryo, your baby is alive with all the genetic material needed to start growing. Thus, embryonic life (i.e., first 8 weeks) consists of body and organ development, including the heart which starts beating at week 4 and is detectable by week 6. By week 8 your baby is in the fetal stage of development and can sense touch.

Week 10!

By week 12, your baby starts gathering the sensory cells needed for hearing which onsets at week 16. By week 18 external sounds become more clear, and your baby continues to become more responsive to sound for the rest of pregnancy. By 30-weeks, your baby’s short-term memory begins and experiential learning starts taking place. This means that your baby can remember musical experiences during these last 10 weeks of pregnancy. By week 40, your baby is ready for birth! Between week 12 to week 40, what is taking place organically is cochlear maturation. The cochlea is a tiny organ in your ear that turns sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

The cochlea spends the majority of pregnancy developing and fine tuning prior to completed maturation at birth. The above diagram explains that while the cochlea finishes growing at birth, the brain’s ability to process signals from the cochlea does not finish until 6-years-old. This information means that auditory development is not just about the ears, it’s about the brain.

The scientific community continues to learn more and more each day about the impact that early experiences have on a child’s brain development. Outcomes from the last research studies are indicating that early experiences do matter, and the habits that a woman has while pregnant does in fact impact the baby’s neurodevelopment. For example, if the cochlea does not develop as it should, then the auditory cortex (i.e., the area in the brain that processes auditory information) does not develop as it should. Therefore, developmentally-supportive measures such as protecting your baby’s hearing during pregnancy should be taken.

Here are three tips to protect your baby’s hearing:

  • Avoid 8-hour-long exposure to loud sounds. For example, if you typically work in a loud environment, try asking to work in a quiet office to protect your baby’s hearing.
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes, abusing drugs, and drinking alcohol during pregnancy as these can not only cause serious health complications, but also negatively affect your baby’s hearing, sensory processing, and overall neurodevelopment. For help reach out to your doctor or local mental health center to learn more about recovery programs. In 2017 about 22% of recovery centers nation-wide offered specific support programs designed for pregnant and postpartum mothers. You are not alone!
  • Refrain from music devices that ask you to place speakers right over your baby or elsewhere on or in your body. Due to challenges adjusting and determining appropriate volume, these experiences have the potential to be overstimulating. Instead, sing or play recorded music in the open air.

If this is all new to you, no worries. That’s what the 9 months are for, right?Your baby is learning and you are learning too. With the protective measures in mind, there are SO many simple ways to safely incorporate sound and music for development during pregnancy! Stay tuned for my next article to learn about your unborn baby’s ability to process music and ways to use music during pregnancy to support your baby’s development!

To start implementing developmentally-rich music experiences during pregnancy, watch the videos I created and uploaded on https://www.facebook.com/MusicTherapyforMom

References

Cleveland Clinic. (2014). Fetal development: Stages of growth. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7247-fetal-development-stages-of-growth

Hill, M. A. (2020) Fetal development. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Fetal_Development

McLaughlin, S. A., Thorne, J. C., Jirikowic, T., Waddington, T., Lee, A. K. C., & Hemingway, S. J. A. (2019). Listening difficulties in children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: More than a problem of audibility. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 62(5), 1532-1548.

Pujol, R. (2016). Development of the auditory brain. Retrieved from  http://www.cochlea.eu/en

Selander, J., Albin, M., Rosenhall, U., Rylander, L., Lewne, M., & Gustavsson, P. (2016). Maternal occupation exposure to noise during pregnancy and hearing dysfunction in children: A nationwide prospective cohort study in Sweden. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(6), 855-850.

Standley, J. M. & Walworth, D. (2010). Music Therapy with Premature Infants: Research and Developmental Interventions. Silver Spring, MD: The American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Weitzman, M., Govil, N., Liu, Y. H., Lawani, A. K. (2013). Maternal prenatal smoking and hearing loss among adolescents. JAMA Otolaryngology- Head & Neck Surgery, 139(7), 669-677.

Wegener, D. (2020). Drug & alcohol rehab centers for pregnant women. Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/pregnant-women

Wehby, G. L., Prater, K., McCarthy, A. M., Castilla, E. E., & Murray, J. C. (2011). The impact of maternal smoking during pregnancy on early child neurodevelopment. Journal of Human Capital, 5(2), 207-254.