To the layman, the website for BabyPlus might seem plausible. The company sells devices that supposedly make babies smarter by playing sounds to them while still in the womb. The site claims that by strapping a speaker playing loud rhythmic sounds to her belly, an expectant mother ensures her child will be more relaxed, nurse more readily, and later have “enhanced intellectual abilities” and “greater creativity,” presumably ahead of everyone else in pre-school.
The company, whose founder boasts a PhD from a British university, promises that it’s all backed up by solid science and even includes a scientific-looking paper and close associations with something called The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.
However, closer inspection quickly untangles the site. The founder, “Dr.” Brent Logan has a masters degree in literature. His PhD came from Somerset University, an unaccredited degree mill seemingly shut down after a federal investigation. The scientific paper legitimizing BabyPlus was a tiny Russian study, published in a journal so obscure I couldn’t find its website. And the founder of the APPPH, a minor association promoting prenatal learning, repeatedly disavowed Logan, all but calling him a fraud.
BabyPlus is just one of many pseudoscientific products that claims to enhance children’s pre-pre-education. Whether playing music for fetuses, or making babies smarter with brightly-colored plush toys, there has never been a better time to sell parents on the idea that it’s never too early to prepare for college. Websites promoting “baby geniuses” are all over the web and tutoring now begins at three. But teaching a child before it’s born, for many researchers, just goes too far.
Although scientists have spent decades studying how babies learn in their first few years of life, very little is known about how much, if anything, a fetus learns during pregnancy. Research goes back to the 1920’s and 30’s when scientists introduced Pavlovian conditioning in unborn children using loud noises. In 1985, at the University of North Carolina a group of 33 babies seemed to recognize and prefer specific passages that had been read to them while in the womb (they indicated this through a rubber nipple hilariously called the “suck-o-meter”).
More recently, studies have shown that baby cries reflect the language spoken by their mother. Kathleen Wermke showed a while back that French babies had a distinctive upswing in their wailing, versus the more underplayed German downswing. But learning simple cadences does not mean fetuses carry meaningful knowledge. Even Wermke says that people should not take too much from her work, and that tools for teaching fetuses are ridiculous.
Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that programs like Baby Einstein that rely on DVD learning actually delay language (ironically, just like Einstein himself, who didn’t talk until three, freaking the hell out of his mom). This is not to say that these non-talking boob-tubers are any more stunted than other kids, but they are certainly not any more advanced. That’s also not to say that early intervention is not important. Brain imaging work has shown again and again that the earlier you can identify and treat disorders like autism, the better chance you have of minimizing the effects.
However, there is one thing that does seem to predict how well a fetus will do later in life – how much money his/her parents make. While there is no evidence that BabyPlus or Baby Einstein does any good (and some suggest that they do harm), there is plenty of evidence that the 20 percent of children born into poverty have a tougher time learning throughout their lives, either due to malnutrition or the lack of prenatal care.
In a seminal 1998 study by English psychologist Micheal Rutter, followed 111 Romanian orphans adopted by caring British families. At the time they were rescued, malnutrition was the rule and intestinal or breathing problems were rampant. And of course, at the time, most of them were developmentally stunted. However, the babies rescued six months or younger recovered and are now indistinguishable from any other Brit. Kids older than that, sadly, still carried intellectual scars from the malnutrition.
The only real Baby Einstein, it would seem, is three healthy meals a day and having loving people around.
Photo Credit: All Photos courtesy of shutterstock.com.