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Desperate for baby Einsteins, some parents are training their children even before they are born. Has competition gone too far?
Narmada Jagannath places her hands on her swollen belly, closes her eyes and dreams of her unborn child winning an award for being "No. 1 in the world. " The 25-year-old, eight months into her pregnancy, visualises and enunciates every minute detail: "Papa, Mummy and you are sitting on a stage in the middle of a packed stadium. The Presidents and Prime Ministers of many countries come up one by one and congratulate you for achieving what no one has achieved before and hand a big trophy to you. There is a thunderous applause..."
A Chennai-based software engineer, Jagannath says she communicates with her foetus in this manner because she wants an "intelligent, knowledgeable and confident" baby. She has enrolled in a special prenatal education programme, Dhyan Baby, which helps parents have "gifted children" by channelising the thoughts and actions of the expectant mother.
Dhyan Baby is among several new-age interventions that promise baby geniuses by "stimulating" the child's brain while it is still in the womb. Sample this: Little Gems promises to give you a "super child by birth", Aspire Superkidz offers to "multiply your baby's intelligence" and the Yoga Sanskar Niketan in Mumbai claims you can have a "whole child" with its training.
Driven by their desire for "bright" children, a growing number of parents are enrolling for these classes. More than 3, 800 pregnant women from across metros took up the "Welcome Home Baby" programme of Aspire Superkidz last year. At least 60 couples enroll for Dhyan Baby and Little Gems' training every month.
Parents who sign up for Little Gems are given 20 kilos of material, including CDs and manuals, to help them train their child (both in utero and after birth). The institute's website says toddlers who have received the training can recite capitals of all countries, do "computer-like calculations" and talk in multiple languages.
Scientists and educationists are skeptical about both the scientific basis and the rationale for such training. "Why do parents want to produce the next Einstein? Why does a 1. 5 year-old need to know the capitals of countries?" asks Dr Vidita Vaidya, neurobiologist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Educationist Nilesh Nimkar feels such training would put "unnecessary pressure" on little ones.
But parents insist they are not burdening their children. "We are not teaching the baby A, B, C. It is a unique system of learning through flash cards and audio. The children enjoy it, " says Mumbai resident Bhooma Hariharan. Her daughter Soundarya, 7, could recognise flags of all countries and recite the hanuman chalisa at the tender age of three.
"She always tops in class and stood tenth in the national abacus competition recently, " says Hariharan proudly. "A baby's brain is like a bucket that absorbs information. The exercises help us increase the bucket's size and improve the child's learning capacity tremendously. "
THE ABHIMANYU MODEL
The programmes are based on the premise that the way we turn out in life depends a lot on our experience in utero and that the nine months of gestation permanently influence the wiring of the brain and the functioning of other organs.
Moreover, five-sixth of our brain's development is believed to take place before the age of five years. "In this period, our right brain which is associated with creativity, intuition and spirituality is dominant. The left brain takes over after five, " says Vijay Bhaskaran from Little Gems, adding that their training promotes right brain function which enables the children to learn more efficiently. He and other advocates of prenatal training point out to the tale of Abhimanyu in Mahabharata - he learnt how to enter the impenetrable Chakravyuha when he was still in his mother's womb.
LOOK WHO'S TALKING?
Like gurus and grannies, the modern-day prenatal training schools too ask pregnant women to listen to classical music and mantras, but they lay more emphasis on "chat" sessions. To-be parents are trained to communicate with the foetus several times a day to not only create a lasting bond but also to enhance the child's capabilities. Little Gems asks parents to give "positive affirmations" to the baby such as "You are a very smart baby". Started by infant education specialist Revathy Sankaran, the Little Gems system is inspired by the teachings of Dr Glenn Doman, founder of the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential, Philadelphia. Sankaran's team guides parents to "teach" babies from as early as 40 days after conception till the age of five years.
The Dhyan Baby training consists of a special therapy for the foetus every month starting from the fourth month of pregnancy depending on its stage of development. The seventh month, for instance, has the "EQ and Dream Child therapy" as the baby begins to dream around this time. The sixth-month therapy focuses on the child's IQ. "If we stimulate the mind at this stage, the neurons get connected faster after birth. The more the links, the higher the IQ, " claims N Kalyani, a psychotherapist who started Dhyan Baby.
Each baby genius-making institute has its own set of techniques to boost the foetus' intellectual development. Aspire Superkidz trains fathers to teach the child '1, 2, 3' during the third trimester. "He has to tap the wife's belly once, twice and then thrice while calling out the number. The baby will respond by giving the same number of kicks, " claims Swaminathan K, an alumnus of IIM Bangalore who founded Aspire Superkidz with two batchmates. The institute also asks mothers to read out "love letters" to the foetus.
The prenatal education systems also teach a mother ways to remain stress-free and cheerful as her emotions are communicated to the child via the hormones her body releases. Proponents say the babies who are trained in the womb cry less, sleep better and are happier.
TOO MUCH PRESSURE ON LITTLE ONES?
Independent experts say there is enough data to back the fact that nutrition and stress during pregnancy have an impact on the child, but they are not convinced about the worth of prenatal education. "Unless proper long-term studies are conducted on a substantial sample of children to prove the efficacy of such programmes, I would not believe the claims, " says Nimkar. Vaidya points out that while the foetus can hear sounds and recognise voices, there is no evidence to suggest that it can understand what the parents talk. "If talking to the baby lowers the mother's stress level, it would undoubtedly help, but there is no evidence to show it would have any further use. "
Experts also fear that following such programmes would further increase the expectations of parents as they would have invested time, energy and money in the child's education even before birth.
Many parents too find the very idea of such training outrageous. "What right do we have to condition the foetus's brain?" says would-befather Abhishek Sharan. "I think parents should at least let the babies be at peace in the womb. There is already too much competition in the world. " A young mother agrees. "If there were coaching classes to teach babies to start walking at two months, people would enroll for them too, " she says.
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