“Smart baby” products for infants and have been on the market for years. Now, gadgets geared toward babies who aren’t even born yet are popping up on the market. Could these new “prenatal learning systems” produce a smarter, more alert, calmer – all around better baby? We checked in with David Bickham, PhD, staff scientist at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health, about the trend. Here’s what he has to say.
Let’s start with what we know about how babies learn after they’re born. Very young children (up to age 2) are unlikely to learn from television images. They need direct interaction with people and objects to maximize their brain development. While there is some research evidence that young children can directly imitate very simple tasks that they see modeled on television, the learning takes many more repetitions than if a live person were doing the teaching. All in all, educational claims made by producers of television shows targeting infants are routinely made without any research evidence.
The same seems to be true for devices designed to teach a fetus with in utero exposure to music. Until there are well-designed, objective studies (preferably not funded by the creators of the devices) we need to rely on existing understanding of the needs of the fetus. There actually is not much to indicate that a fetus would benefit from listening to recorded music over more naturally occurring sounds, such as parents’ voices. The “Mozart Effect” study that is often cited was conducted with college students, not fetuses, and has not been systematically replicated.
Can these products actually cause harm? There is no existing evidence for that either. Experts in the field warn about the possibility for these devices to interfere with the fetus’s sleep cycles, brain development and overall natural environment necessary for health gestation. While all these are possibilities that should be explored, the largest known negative impact of these products is to the parents’ wallet. Overall, there seems to be little reason to believe that children who wait until after they are born to listen to Vivaldi will have any sort of educational disadvantages.