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The Maternal Womb: The First Musical School for the Baby
by Ruth Fridman
Editor’s Note: Prof. Ruth Fridman has been a pioneer in revealing the important effects of the first sounds that babies hear including the sound of mothers singing to them in the womb, at birth and as infants. In this paper she reminds us of her inspirational work with pregnant mothers she teaches to compose lullabies to sing to their babies. Her many presentations, travels, books, and song books are included in the impressive list of career milestones at the end of this article. Ruth is the current President, International Music Society for Prenatal Development (IMSPD). Please direct any correspondence to her at Coronel Diaz 1564, 1425 Buenos Aires, Argentina or via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1971 I began to tape sonorous rhythmic intonated expressions of many infants. It interested me how early infants could begin to sing, to repeat melodies and tap rhythms. I had the feeling that these manifestations had a special origin, that the cultural environment was not the only cause. As I had several ideas about it, I started taping the voices of babies who were full term, premature, or significantly retarded. I recorded their expressions from their birth up to fourteen months old. The taping took place in a children’s hospital of Buenos Aires. As I listened to the babies’ cries, I realized that if I separated the cry from the sounds included in it, it could be labeled as “musical”. Analysis through electronic devices confirmed my hypothesis. Baby cries had the proper characteristics of sound: frequency, timbre, and intensity. When reviewing the bibliography about infant sounds, I did not find any systematic study of the first mass of sounds and their sonorous rhythmic structure in relation to musical activity. Infants’ most elementary vocal rhythmic schemes make up the physiological matrix for future language and music acquisition.
The analysis of infant cries led me to study their expressions from the very instant of their birth. I first undertook a longitudinal study of three newborns up to their first year of life. After this I studied triplets and a Cesarean-born child. The main feature of the first group was that one of the babies sang properly when she was 9 months and 7 days old. The processes used with these infants has been described in my book The Beginnings of Musical Behavior (1974).
My work with infants from their birth on made me realize how important music is during the gestational period. I started teaching music to pregnant women. Both, the mother and the unborn baby benefited.
What is the advantage of the musical stimulus? Mothers discovered personal characteristics they were unaware of as I encouraged them to create lyrics and tunes for their unborn babies. Through a questionnaire, I learned about their musical knowledge and preferences, as well as their doubts, fears, and hopes (Copies of this questionnaire are available from the author). As a result of my research, I decided to work with pregnant women. I was greatly moved by their anxieties, fears, and doubts. I also felt that if a pregnant woman sang to her baby as I had done with my two children, she would establish a closer bond with this baby.
A video made at the Fernandez Hospital and at the San Martin Education and Cultural Center, reveals the mother’s emotion, expression and interest in creating short songs. They did it shyly but with great tenderness. Many of the lyrics revealed their fear of losing the baby, or that it might be defective, and other worries. I had not expected to find these problems. Since I could not help, I suggested they consult a therapist. (I was afraid they would reject my suggestion and stop attending my classes but fortunately this did not happen.)
The experience I had at the hospitals was very productive, in spite of the limited time and space I was given to work there. Pediatricians and neonatologists supported my work, but not the obstetricians and midwives. I will never forget a couple who attended the second class at the Fernandez Hospital bringing a guitar and a quena (Indian reed flute). The man sang the song they had composed for their unborn baby, and the woman introduced the song by playing the quena. I also remember when the mothers came to show me their newborn babies, they reported how they used music at the birth of their babies. This was also true of the single women.
Every pregnant woman is a different world. I invited each to dream about their unborn babies, to imagine their unborn babies little bodies, to imitate the movements babies made inside the womb, to draw pictures for them, and to pamper them with words. They created both a musical and a spoken language as I encouraged them to tell their babies where they were and what they were doing at the time, commenting on whether it was warm or cold, and such. It was quite an experience for them!
The inner language of feelings, which is present in every human being, became a powerful form of expression for these mothers, different from formal language. I remember when I had a similar experience with my two children, and how it brought me closer to the human being inside me. I believe the advantage of these activities is that they establish a prenatal bond which contains tenderness on the part of the parents to be, a promise of protection, and the wish to see and hold the baby in their arms. Pregnant parents created these songs naturally, songs that would stay with them the rest of their lives, invented in a period of love, anguish and expectancy. It is of great significance for babies to hear music, to hear parents talking to them, and to be gently massaged during the gestation period. The mother’s emotional expressions benefit both herself and her baby. When pregnant women sing, the unborn babies answer by moving their bodies. They are little acrobats when they have enough space. These rhythmic movements of the unborn are certainly very important to motor development. And according to some experts, fetal movements provide an activity which contributes to the development of psychic functions as well.
I worked most enthusiastically at the San Martin Cultural Center where women attended my classes of their own free will. At first, they came out of curiosity but they listened with great interest. These classes were also attended by male parents, doctors, and professionals who wanted to learn about musical training of mothers-to-be. In my opinion, these musical experiences should be offered at every maternity hospital and would improve the mental and emotional health of both parents and children. The last trimester of gestation is especially important and parents must make the most of this period of rapid growth.
At times I worked with babies in incubators. All the sounds they had heard in the womb and were familiar, were now replaced by the noises of the incubators. The previous experience of natural sounds was lost. Therefore, I advised parents to record their voices and songs for their babies in incubators. Although nowadays, a radio is sometimes placed in incubators as a stimulus, I think the parent’s voices are best.
Mothers quickly demonstrated that music was not the property of elete members of society or those with advanced education. My students at the San Martin Education and Cultural Center and at the hospitals came from all different socioeconomic classes and different cultural levels. However, each of them was able to create songs and to communicate with her baby in a personal and genuine way. Each of them found their own way and their own rhythm as they progressed through pregnancy. Not only did they realize they had conceived a human being but many of them discovered a way of communication they had never thought of before. In music, mothers would say things they would not express verbally.
Although lack of communication, lack of essential stimuli, and other maladaptive problems are inevitable in some cases, I believe sincerely that babies and parents could avoid or resolve many of their difficulties if they were offered prenatal music classes maternity hospitals. Beside the experiences I have shared briefly with you here, I can confirm by observing the babies from their birth onward that music was a formative element in their lives. When a baby has been stimulated by his mother with music, by the fifth month the baby already shows affective memory towards sound. At only nine months old, one of these babies was singing the song his mother had systematically sung throughout his prenatal days.
Finally, I am hopeful that the scientific contributions of neuroscience, genetics, and psychology will help to illuminate the nature of the very early musical responsiveness which appears to be an innate function of all human beings.
Milestones in the Career of Prof. Ruth Fridman