Any parent wants to set her child up for success—so the promise of boosting baby’s IQ before he’s even born is, of course, highly appealing. From moms-to-be playing Beethoven and reading books to their bellies to concocting crazy recipes, we’ve seen and heard it all. “We become mothers from the moment that we find out we’re pregnant, as the choices we make can affect the growth and development of our unborn child,” says Katie Friedman, MD, a Florida-based pediatrician and cofounder of Forever Freckled. And that includes what we do to ultimately affect baby’s brain. So what actually works?
The first method that probably pops to mind is playing classical music for baby. But while hearing Beethoven’s symphonies in the womb certainly won’t do any harm, this isn’t quite the brain booster it’s made out to be. “Although relaxing for Mommy, there’s no concrete research that establishes a relationship between playing classical music prenatally and increasing your baby’s intelligence,” Friedman says. In fact, in 2010 a group of psychologists at the University of Vienna conducted a comprehensive review of all previous studies on this topic, and found the theory to be without merit. "I recommend listening to Mozart to everyone, but it will not meet expectations of boosting cognitive abilities," says Jakob Pietschnig, lead author of the study.
While the so-called Mozart Effect may be myth, there are several things science has shown can help when it comes to literally giving your baby a head start.
You don’t have to run a marathon to reap the benefits of exercising during pregnancy. At the end of a workout, your body releases mood-boosting endorphins—which actually make their way to baby. Exercise increases the flow of blood around your body, including your womb, and that in turn stimulates baby’s development overall. In case that wasn’t enough motivation to get to the gym, research has found](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3458263/) that aerobic exercise during pregnancy also seems to target baby’s brain, helping to improve brain function and spatial learning in particular.
Ditching Drugs, Alcohol and Nicotine
This one can’t be stressed enough—the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises against smoking and drinking alcohol while pregnant. “Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is one of the leading causes of preventable birth defects and learning disabilities in newborns,” Friedman says. “There is no amount of alcohol that’s deemed safe to drink during pregnancy. Abstaining from drinking alcohol is imperative for the intellectual development of a baby.”
There’s nothing fishy about it: Including seafood in your weekly dinner menu rotation may help expectant moms improve their baby’s cognitive scores and may also decrease the risk of early symptoms of autism. A 2016 study found that kids whose mothers ate three to four servings of fish per week had IQ scores that were 2.8 percent higher than children born to moms who ate less fish. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines—which contain higher levels of DHA than leaner fish—showed the strongest effect. DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid that all pregnant women are encouraged to take as a prenatal supplement)—supports healthy brain development. What’s also great about salmon and sardines? They contain less mercury than larger fish. For the latest details on the consumption of different types of seafood during pregnancy, check out the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Practice Advisory.
Turns out, eating eggs during pregnancy may help set baby up to be a faster learner with a better memory. Egg yolks are packed with choline, a member of the vitamin B family (and among the US Institute of Medicine’s list of essential nutrients for pregnant women) that, according to 2004 animal-based research has the power to super-charge babies’ brains for life. Previous research had shown that giving choline to pregnant rats improves learning and memory in their offspring, but this study revealed that choline actually changes the brain’s cell structure to support cognitive development. The pups born to rats who received an increased intake of choline during pregnancy had 20 to 25 percent larger neurons in the area of the brain that’s critical for learning, meaning their brain cells had more capacity to receive incoming signals.
Talking and Reading to Baby
You might feel a little silly talking to your pregnant belly, but the payoff may be worth it. In a 2013 study, when expectant women were given a recording to play toward the end of their pregnancy that included a made-up word, the babies were able to recognize the word and its variations after they were born. (How could researchers tell, you ask? Neural signals showed they recognized the pitch and vowel changes in the fake word.) The babies who heard the recording most frequently had the strongest response, suggesting that language learning begins in utero. It’s important to note, though, that while talking aloud to baby can help promote early word recognition, there’s no evidence this actually increases baby’s intelligence in the long-run.
Another reason to talk out loud to baby? Even within the first two months of life, baby can recognize voices, especially those of her parents, Friedman says. “The voice of her mother becomes a familiar sound that can help soothe her and make her feel safe,” she explains. “Since babies are able to recognize the voices they became familiar with while in utero, reading to them helps with bonding.” So read and chat away!
Updated October 2017