Digital, Baby!

Technology Goes Back to the Womb

Despite its organic origins, birth has become a decidedly high-tech experience. Between fetal monitors and ultrasound machines, expectant mothers spend more time attached to biotech gear than Lindsay Wagner's Bionic Woman. Now, moms-to-be don't even have to wait for a trip to the OB's offices to plug in.

Nothing gets a prospective parent quite as giddy as hearing the slushy thump of a fetal heartbeat. FirstSounds, invented by a neonatal nurse, is essentially like a Walkman for the uterus or, better yet, a Walkfetus. If you've ever dreamed of being an obstetrician, now's your chance; just rub the ultrasonic sensor along the surface of your belly until it picks up the heartbeat.

According to some birth mavens, the sounds of the womb aren't just a novelty, they're music to the ears of newborns. Several companies are now marketing CDs and audiotapes that make Nirvana's In Utero look like kid's stuff. Sounds of the Womb is one such product; this one comes packaged with little foam bumpers that keep an infant from rolling on her stomach when she sleeps.

Developed by Dr. Jay Freed, a Long Island pediatrician, the music was recorded externally using a process called compound fetal Doppler holography. Since the womb is filled with amniotic fluid, sonar can transmit sound waves that change according to fetal movement and vibrations. These sounds are picked up through a series of transducers attached along the mother's body. Crank it up and you've got instant womb rock.

Doug Berlent, who helped produce the tape, says that these sounds calm a child much more than your average Barney sing-along. "Those kinds of sounds just represent an adult's conception of what's soothing," Berlent says. Uteral sounds do a better job because they remind a baby of his calm beginnings. Furthermore, he adds, the trippy, pulsing womb music is so calming that for adults it can "bring you back to places you've never been." Like, for example, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon tour.

The power of music can come in handy down the line, too. The Hop On! Musical Potty is a little miracle of science that uses nursery rhyme melodies and some Pavlovian conditioning to help Junior's target practice. Two tiny gold-plated sensors inside the plastic bowl pick up even the slightest presence of moisture, signaling the playback of a series of prerecorded digital tunes. Kiddo's rewarded with "Yankee Doodle," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and, most appropriately, "Little Brown Jug." Although Britney Spears's "...Baby One More Time" seems like a natural for the Hop On! soundtrack, it's not in this mix.

The conditioning is not likely to back up on the trainee down the line, says Hop On!'s inventor, Tony Ander, since the songs are played as a result of the accomplishment taking place. "It's not like he's going to have to go to the bathroom every time he hears the Pledge of Allegiance," he says. And thank goodness for that.

For many new mothers, though, nothing comes in quite as handy as an electric breast pump. Medela, a Swiss manufacturer, is one of the more renowned developers of breast-feeding technology. Over the past 30 years, the company has been churning out milk machines for women on the go. One of the more popular recent items is the "Pump in Style," a fashionable package complete with a Kate Spade–style carrying bag.

June Case, marketing coordinator for Medela, says that the mechanics of the breast pumps come down to a sophisticated system of pistons and vacuums. Essentially, the pumps are designed to mimic an infant as closely as possible. Their suction delivers suckling and nursing motions that stop and start just like a real kid.

One problem with other companies' pumps, says Case, is that the mother has to manually release the vacuum pressure. To do this, she must cover and uncover a tiny blowhole (kind of like those on the side of a bong). Medela's high-tech designs relieve pressure automatically.

Gizmos like this can be a new mom's best friend, say some parents. Trudi Roth, a 33-year-old marketing executive, tried the pump a few days after giving birth. Though it took a little getting used to, she said that ultimately it took quite a load, literally, off her back. "I guess this is what a cow feels like," she said. "The machine starts pumping and making all these noises and suddenly you realize you're one big tit."

 
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