If you’ve ever taken a postnatal mom-and-baby yoga class, you might remember this clever trick. When all the babies seem to be crying and fussing, the yoga teacher begins to chant “Oooooommmm,” and all the mamas join in. What follows feels like magic: The babies almost always simmer down, their sounds lowering in volume and then ceasing as the chant vibrates through the air.
But does this same trick work in utero? Can pregnant moms who practice yoga, chant and embrace mantras calm their fetuses down? Better yet, can these practices help grow a calmer infant, toddler, tween and teen?
Like mother, like child
What we do know about babies in utero lends credence to the idea that women who use these techniques are affecting their unborn children. “When a mother’s stress hormones are up, her adrenal glands are producing stress hormones,” says Colette Crawford, R.N., founder of Seattle Holistic Center and a prenatal yoga instructor. “The baby’s adrenal glands produce the same stress hormones, and now that baby is getting a double whammy from the mom’s stress hormones.” Anything a pregnant woman does to alleviate stress in herself reduces stressors for her baby, too.
When a prenatal woman practices yoga, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, slowing her heart rate and blood pressure and reducing muscle tension. “Research suggests that prenatal yoga can also improve sleep; relieve lower back pain; reduce nausea, headaches and shortness of breath; and lower the risk of preterm labor and pregnancy-induced hypertension,” writes Margo Shapiro Bachman in Yoga Mama Yoga Baby.
However, the question remains: Will this prenatal practice make for an unfussy infant? The jury is still out, but Anne Phyfe Palmer, founder of 8 Limbs Yoga Center in Seattle, believes we don’t really need an answer. “My perspective is to put the focus on the mother. If she is receiving the benefits from these practices — without any research needed to back it up — her future child is, too,” she says.
Jen Keeler, founder of Seattle’s Yoga Momma, says that practicing prenatal yoga was the reason she decided to become a yoga teacher and create a perinatal yoga program. “Yoga provides a greater access for connection,” she explains. “The mother can turn inward and take the time to connect to her growing baby inside. It helps alleviate tensions and imbalances in the mother’s body, and breath and meditation support that.”
The “om” chant that often begins and ends a yoga class reaches the baby in the uterus quite clearly. Fetuses’ ears are completely functional by week 16, and active listening starts by week 24. The late researcher and otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) Alfred Tomatis believed embryos listen with their entire bodies, saying the skin is like an ear in that world. To a fetus, the mother’s voice is clearer than any other voice. When a pregnant mother chants in a yoga class, the baby both hears her voice and feels the calming energy created by this vocalization.
“Chanting can be used as a resource for calming and connection, if that resonates with you. Singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ might work better for some people,” says Carey DeMartini, a yoga instructor and therapist based in Seattle. “Think about it in terms of self-regulation, and children learning to soothe themselves with the initial support of the parent’s calming voice.”
DeMartini continues, “If babies are sung to in utero, they have the experience of something that is calming and then familiar to them after they are born, as childbirth educator Penny Simkin points out in her video Singing to the Baby. The repetitive, rhythmic pattern of a song can be calming for both baby and parent. I sang often to my girls when they were babies, and music continues to be an important part of our daily lives. I see how it helps my girls express themselves and regulate their moods.”
Research backs up DeMartini’s ideas. Studies show that fetuses move to the beat of kettledrums, and that the sounds of lullabies soothe babies in utero. Most likely, chanting has a similar impact.
“ ‘Om’ is the primordial sound of consciousness and divine light,” Crawford says. “While attending births [as a nurse and a doula], I chant my mantra, and it has a subtle soothing effect. That is why we do our practice, even if it is just a few minutes a day, and you chant a mantra. Choose your own, whatever you feel aligned with, maybe one from your own faith.”
A mantra is one more way for a pregnant woman to relax her mind and body. “On a really simple, surface level, it helps to focus and train your mind. You could use any word or any phrase,” Palmer says. “When you are saying a mantra or chanting a word, you are doing three things. First, you are invoking that word’s meaning. Saying a mantra is also the practice of self-study: You are taking away the story and the chatter of the mind and coming closer to [the] self. On the third level, you are awakening the connection to the divine within.”
Often a mantra is thought rather than spoken. Although the baby in utero can’t hear the mom in that case, the calmness invoked with this thought has the same effect that all of these other practices have on the fetus.
Scientific research may never tell us if a pregnant mom’s yoga, chanting, singing and mantra-loving ways make for a calmer young person when the baby grows up. Even so, Crawford suggests listening to the yogis. “What affects the mother affects the fetus. This baby is cooking in the soup of this mother’s experience. My guru says, ‘Pay attention to what you think, eat, read and see with your eyes, what you experience and you feel. If you want a calm and happy baby, then pay attention to where your energy is and what energies are coming in.’ ”