When I was expecting my first child eight years ago, I checked with my obstetrician if it was all right to eat this and that, or do this and that. I wanted to make sure that my baby would be safe, healthy, and yes, clever.
Isn’t that every parent’s secret fantasy? We’ve heard that reading to babies in the womb, letting them listen to the right music, and getting the right kind of nutrition can give your gestating peanut a leg-up in the brainy stakes. True? Or just some really clever marketing? We asked the ones in the know: Dr. Fong Kah Leng at Sincere Medical Specialist Centre for Women and Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, a Professor at the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore.
Sounds & The Mozart Effect
The Mozart Effect was a very popular study conducted by the University of California in 1993. The results of this study showed that college students who listened to the Austrian composer’s creations displayed an increase in IQ points in spatial reasoning. However, while music is recognised as a wonderful stimulation or relaxation tool, there is no solid evidence that you can increase your foetus’s future intelligence by playing music to it.
We’re being overly technical about babies’ capabilities, says Dr. Derbyshire. “Unlike you and I who are exposed to a variety of stimulation at any given moment but are able to focus on one which is important, a baby does not have the skills to focus on one thing and ignore the others yet. These skills are crucial to learn to process information.”
So foetuses do hear and feel things, but they do not have anything to relate these experiences to. For them, the music that is played is simply another bit of noise in addition to the sounds of rain, traffic, and people talking. In fact, says Dr. Derbyshire, all that stimulation could be overwhelming for the baby and may lead to him not learning any useful information at all.
What you can do
Read to your bump. Talk to it. The mother’s voice is the most frequent one heard by the foetus and it remains “the Rolls-Royce of contentment and lack of distress” place for Baby even when out of the womb, says Dr. Derbyshire. All that cooing, crooning and communicating to the foetus so may help your baby to recognise and bond with you after birth. It could also help you to relax, reduce stress and deepen your own feelings for your baby.
The natural stimulation your baby receives from everyday conversations and activities after he is born is more than enough to prepare him for the outside world. “He will naturally learn quickly from the people and environment after birth instead, because babies are social creatures,” says Dr. Derbyshire.
Prenatal Supplements & Superfoods
Obviously, you want to be in in the pink of health while pregnant. You’re growing a human being in your body! And as Dr. Fong Kah Leng of Sincere Medical Specialist Centre for Women confirms, what you do while you’re pregnant can have as much impact on your child’s brain development and future intelligence as what you do after you give birth. “You should not take any medication while pregnant unless it is necessary. Any kind of drug use has the potential to limit the later intellectual development of the unborn child,” she says.
Next, eat smart to cover any nutritional gaps in your diet. Dr. Fong shares, “Adequate choline (eggs have plenty of it) during pregnancy has long-lasting effects on a baby’s ability to learn and remember.” Apart from helping brain cells to develop properly, studies have also found that choline may provide some resistance to mental illness.
Your obstetrician will have prescribed you folic acid. This is one of the supplement stars for pregnant women, says Dr. Fong. “Taking folic acid is essential. Folic acid has long been known to play a key role in the formation of healthy brain cells.” A minimum of 600 mcg of folic per day during pregnancy can reduce babies’ risks of developing a deformation of the brain or spinal column by as much as 70 per cent. Apart from pills, you’ll also find folic in foods like green leafy vegetables, fruits and fortified foods such as breads, cereals and pastas.
The other prenatal star supplement is Docosahexaenoic acid, better known by its acronym DHA. This has shown to be vital for normal brain and eye development and function in unborn babies. Just be cautious however, when selecting the kind of DHA to consume. Certain deep-sea fishes that are high in DHA are not recommended during pregnancy because they contain high levels of mercury which could be toxic. These include shark, king mackerel, swordfish and tilefish.
What you can do
Move it while pregnant? Yes, say experts. The benefits have been proven: an easier labour and delivery, and a quicker return to pre-pregnancy body shape and fitness levels. Now, it’s been found that exercising while pregnant could elevate your baby’s brain power too.
A study by researchers at the University of Montreal, presented in November 2013, suggests that mothers who exercise during pregnancy can enhance their baby’s brain development. The study participants were tracked from the beginning of their second trimester. One group remained sedentary throughout pregnancy, while the other did cardiovascular exercise for 20 minutes three times a week.
The babies of mothers who exercised were found to have more cerebral activity, suggesting that their brains had developed more rapidly. Still, the findings are not a reason to hop into workout gear and head for the gym. “This news is encouraging, but we need to wait for more data”, says Dr. Fong.
What you can do
If you have been exercising regularly before pregnancy, you should be able to continue all the way till delivery. Adapt your routines to your growing belly and listen to your body. If you have been a couch potato all this while, Dr. Fong’s recommendation is to start slow and easy, with 15-minute prenatal exercises three times a week, increasing gradually to 30-minute sessions four times a week, and finally to daily sessions. While exercise is generally safe for both mother and foetus during pregnancy, always remember to get the nod from your obgyn before starting on an exercise regime while pregnant.