Building brain power in the womb

by Julie Snyder

Brain PowerWhen you think of the amazing mental life of your developing baby, does a wave of panic wash over you?

Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, lectures on brain development. After a discussion, a woman came up, looking anxious. "My father wants me to start tapping on my stomach. Not just tapping, but he wants me to learn Morse code and start tapping messages to my baby. Maybe he's start tapping back. Will that make him smarter?" she asked.

Boosting baby's brain power

Peace and quiet in early pregnancy

At first, from your baby's perspective, the womb lacks stimulation. It's dark, moist, warm, protective and quieter than "out there." Your child has a lot to accomplish and the quiet is just what your baby needs.

Once things get going, your embryo's pre-brain pumps out neurons at a rate of 500,000 cells a minute. In the four seconds it took you to read that sentence, your baby made more than 32,000 new cells.

Some experts think this is one of the reasons women experience morning sickness. One study (that hasn't been replicated) looked at kids born to mothers who suffered from extreme nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. At school age, 21 percent scored 130 or more on a standard IQ test. Only 7 percent of kids whose moms had no morning sickness scored that high.

Your baby -- the mini processor

In the second half of pregnancy, your baby begins to process information from the senses like smelling dinner you're cooking and tasting garlic in the sauce.

Some studies indicate that kids form food preference or music likes and dislikes before birth. Scientists find the studies interesting but today's data isn't strong enough to tell whether there's a benefit for parents eager to aid development.

Can commercial products improve your baby's brain performance?

✓ In the 70s, it was a for-purchase curriculum.
✓ In the 80s, it was the Pregaphone, a funnel and speaker system.
✓ In the 90s, it was the Mozart Effect.

Over the years we've seen gimmicks "guaranteed" to boost a baby's attention span, cognitive performance or vocabulary all before birth. If you walk in a store today, you're bound to find products making similar claims.

No commercial product has even been shown in a scientifically responsible manner to do anything to improve a growing fetus's brain performance.

Four steps to a better brain

There are four behaviors that aid and affect brain development, especially during the second half of pregnancy.

Gain the right amount of weight. When you eat enough food, your baby grows. It's a balancing act though. Up to 8 pounds, your baby's IQ increases with birth weight. Above 9 pounds, the IQ drifts down a little.

Eat the right foods. Giving in to all your cravings might not make your baby smarter, but stocking your kitchen with the right ingredients for brain growth can. Your healthy pregnancy diet is familiar and maybe boring. Eat balanced meals, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables. For the non-vegetarians, include red meat for iron. Vegetarian or not, iron's essential for proper brain development.

Avoid too much stress: Your stress hormones can influence prenatal development. They reach through your placenta to your baby and can have long-lasting behavior consequences. Learn ways to get stress relief in your life. You might try meditation, breathing techniques or exercise.

Exercise just the right amount. Exercise buffers against stress. That's good for your baby. It also tones you up for pushing that baby out. Fit moms push about half as long as moms who are in poor physical condition. Their babies are less likely to experience brain damage from lack of oxygen during birth. As long as your doctor okays it, swim or walk for moderate, regular aerobic exercise.

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.