By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
In the garden of unborn children, the seed of a delicate Queen Anne’s lace and the seed of a bold black-eyed Susan portend very different futures. Human genes contain the codes for such things as size and skin color, and the relative daintiness or ruggedness of the future person.
So much of what makes each child who they are is what happens after two sets of genes ignite. One’s destiny is influenced by the continued interaction of inherited traits (nature) and environmental effects (nurture).
Stephanie and Justin are expecting their first child in a few weeks. Already they know (with 99% certainty) that the baby is a boy. Beyond that, there are only a few clues. He likes to move, especially at night when Stephanie is trying to get some sleep. He may be a big child since he seems to channel an enormous appetite through his mother. And he is already learning. When daddy-to-be yells at the dog, it makes baby jump. But how much of who this child becomes is pre-determined by his genetic code and how much will depend on the influences his parents have some control over (like yelling at the dog)?
A good predictor of a child’s intelligence is his parents’ intelligence. Like any other organ of the body, a brain is created by a genetic code — a blueprint for the production of proteins — that determines its strength and efficiency. So let’s say Stephanie and Justin have passed on enough smarts to get baby started. But without learning experiences, a good brain is limited.
Stimulation through sights, sounds, textures, smells and tastes can make a huge difference in how a baby will make the best use of his grey matter. Through repetition of these stimuli, the pathways among brain cells become increasingly strong.
Creation of these pathways starts early. Through a repeated pattern of movements and sounds, baby may be learning that when Mom sits on the couch to play Mario Party on the Wii, Rascal the dog is likely to get yelled at for trying to get on her lap.
Both anecdotal evidence and research confirm that learning begins way before birth. We know that a fetus can sense movement, light and sound. Not only does a newborn recognize the familiar voices of family members that he has been listening to for the past several months, he is already becoming accustomed to whatever language(s) they use.
I was trying to converse with a baby whose parents and big brother had moved back to the states from Germany just before he was born. The father was American, but Mom was German and apparently spoke only German to her baby. The baby patently ignored me until I switched from English to the shaky remnants of my high school German class. “Guten Morgen, mein Kind.”
He locked his gaze on my face and held it there as long as I spoke his “mother tongue.” So apparently it does matter if you talk to your unborn baby.
Music can also be learned before birth. Researchers examining the effects of prenatal music recommend two short daily sessions with soothing music. By birth these selections will become familiar and may be useful in calming the newborn. Maybe this is why some second-born children are easier to put to sleep; they already know the lullaby. Reading poetry and picture books aloud and playing music for the benefit of the developing fetus may soon become de rigueur for encouraging brain growth during pregnancy.
The Lifestyle Connection
Healthy habits can make a big difference in a developing child. While inherited tendencies for many conditions can affect a child’s mental health — alcoholism, depression, diabetes, hypertension, sickle cell anemia — some environmental factors can minimize or exacerbate symptoms. Proper diet and exercise, for example, can keep certain disease factors in check.
Good prenatal care, of course, includes a healthy diet and appropriate exercise. The best possible outcome is to be expected when Mom’s health is treated with the utmost importance.
Every pregnant woman should consider the harmful effects of poisonous substances such as nicotine and alcohol. Due to their addictive nature, smoking and drinking may not have any safe limits during pregnancy.
Overall fetal development and specific brain functions are jeopardized by the use of harmful substances. Maternal nicotine use has been associated with hyperactivity in young children. Fetal alcohol syndrome includes many learning difficulties, including problems in transferring knowledge from one situation to another, thus creating academic struggles and behavior challenges. Alcohol’s impact on the health of the sperm is still under study.
Stress, in terms of a developing brain, is also a toxic substance. Research has associated high maternal stress levels with high levels in the fetus. A high level of stress hormones, both in early childhood and in the womb, impedes brain growth, mental functioning and emotional control.
Maybe this is why prenatal yoga is catching on. Perhaps daddies and doggies should take it, too.
Deborah Wood is the founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum, an institution that promotes creative play.