Being born too early can cause short-term and long-term health complications for babies. They miss out the significant growth that happens during the last few weeks of pregnancy. As a result, breathing issues, heart problem, and brain defects may trouble some preemies. Apart from this, there is also an increased risk of some degree of hearing problems in babies who are born prematurely. And they may also find it difficult to process different words as they grow up.
However, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has brought some good news to the parents of all preemies. The study says that recreating a womb-like environment with recordings of a mother’s heartbeat and voice could potentially correct these deficits.
Development Of Fetal Hearing
The fetus develops the sense of hearing at about 24 weeks of gestation. By 24 weeks, it is often seen that babies turn their heads in response to voices. The inner ear connects with neurons in the brain responsible for processing sounds. If you could recollect lessons from your science classes, the auditory cortex is the brain region that processes sound. With the proper formation of the auditory cortex, the fetus will be able to hear low-frequency sounds. Thus, they capture their mother’s heartbeats and her voice. Several studies have suggested that a fetus’s heart rate increases when she hears her mother’s voice. It indicates that a baby can clearly identify its mom’s voice.
What Happens To A Preemie
It is believed that the introduction to the melody and rhythm of the mothers’ speech in the womb equips babies for early language acquisition. This encounter with the maternal voice when they are in the womb makes it easy for them to pick up language later in life. Thus, before hearing individual words as a newborn, these voices are a baby’s first lessons. And that’s what a baby is missing when he/she borns too early, leaving a negative impact on his/her sense of hearing. They don’t get time enough time to sense their mother’s heartbeat or voice. Instead, they get used to bright lights and noises of a NICU. Providing them a womb-like environment may help them improve their senses. And that’s what the study found out.
The Good News
The parents of 40 preemies at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston participated in the month-long experiment. These infants were born extremely premature between 25 and 32 weeks of gestation. Mothers of half the infants were asked to sing and read “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and Goodnight Moon in a recording studio. And they used a stethoscope and microphone to record the heartbeats of these mothers. The scientists then removed the higher frequency tones from the recordings. Later, they piped the remaining sound for 45-minute sessions totaling 3 hours per day into 21 infants’ incubators. Meanwhile, the other infants received standard care and heard NICU voices. Using ultrasound images of the brains of both groups, researchers compared the growth after 30 days.
It is found that babies who were exposed to audio recordings of maternal sounds had significantly thicker auditory cortices than those babies in the control group. Thus, the auditory cortex was more adaptive to maternal sounds than environmental noise. Because those sounds replicated what they would have experienced in the womb. Is it a good indication? Scientists believe that when it comes to the brain development in this region, the bigger is better always. Hence, it is a good sign. The study shows the importance of exposing infants to their maternal voice while they are in incubators. It could help preemies develop their brain. Moreover, a mother’s presence in the NICU may even reduce the length of baby’s stay.
The research, however, could not explain how the infants will perform in their later life. For studying the future hearing and language development in these preemies, the researchers need to track the infants through school age.