The Effects of Music on Prenatal Babies

A baby in the womb hears many sounds from the outside world, but one type of noise that gets a lot of attention from moms-to-be is music. While the jury is still out on the true impact of prenatal exposure to Mozart and Bach, preliminary research appears to indicate that your unborn child might enjoy and benefit slightly from a daily dose of music.

Playing music to your unborn baby could have lasting effects. (Image: MeePoohyaphoto/iStock/Getty Images)

Sounds in the Womb

A baby can begin to hear sounds at about 17 weeks gestation, typically around the point when the mother begins to feel the first tiny flutters of movement and before the baby's sex is clearly identifiable. By 26 weeks, the baby's heartbeat will speed up in response to sounds, including music, that come from outside the womb. At 33 weeks gestation, babies have been observed breathing in time to music, indicating an awareness of the beat. By 38 weeks, a baby in the womb reacts differently to various types of music, showing different rates of fetal movement.

Music and Development

According to Baby Center, the true effect of music on prenatal development remains unknown. A loosely-controlled preliminary study in the "Music Educators Journal" in 1985 found that babies exposed to music before birth had longer attention spans than expected for their age and imitated adult sounds better. Another small study in 1997 in "Pre- & Peri-Natal Psychology Journal" looked at babies enrolled in a program called FirstStart, which exposed unborn babies to musical stimulation. These babies showed better motor skills, language development and cognitive skills from birth to six months than the control group of babies. However, because these studies were small and have not been repeated, the question of whether and how much music affects unborn babies remains under investigation.

Recognition After Birth

A 1991 study involving six pregnant women and a larger follow-up study in 1993 both looked at whether babies could recognize music they had heard in the womb after birth. Classical piano music, vocal music and rock music were all played through headphones on the mother's belly. Babies who heard music in the womb responded with more alertness and physical movements at six weeks after birth, indicating that they recognized the music they had heard in the womb. According to the BBC, this recognition of prenatal music experiences might actually last 12 months or more after birth. Playing familiar music after birth might help calm a restless child who recognizes the tune.


Mothers who want to expose their unborn baby to music should not turn the volume up too loud. Exposing your baby to loud music could overstimulate the fetus or even damage the developing ear. The amniotic fluid surrounding a baby can amplify low-pitched sounds, so these could even be louder in the womb than outside. The ideal level is about 70 decibels, according to Baby Center, which is typically a comfortable listening level for the mother as well.

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