Bad Science in the Baby Shop: The Babyplus

I shouldn't read essential baby, like most parenting sites it is a place of pseudoscience and mum myths where opinions and anecdotes are cited as fact. Plus they never link to the studies behind their 'science' articles and I've wasted hours looking for the cited article.
Anyway, instead of doing something useful I was on essential baby and I found this article about a device that is meant to make your baby smarter by playing sounds to it in the womb. The article strongly implies that it will work at least in the short term.
I didn't believe this product would work, so I went to have a closer look. What I found was some really terrible bad science and marketing ploys designed to increase the stress of pregnant women and sell their overpriced product.

The Marketing Stuff
a) The 'child development expert' Sue Davey quoted in the above article is an accountant and managing director. She reportedly has a degree in early childhood education but there are no publications or research on child development under her name.
b) Sue Davey is the managing director of Your Child Development foundation - presumably named to mislead people into confusing it with the 'childhood development foundation' a research foundation in the U.S. Since I could not find the 'Your Child Development foundation' at all I'm going to presume its a sham foundation to legitimise this website which sells products teaching your baby or toddler to read, do math and become gifted in music.
c) The 'expert' behind the product Dr Brent Logan reportedly has no medical or scientific training and is the head of another sham foundation 'the prenatal institute' not to be confused with the 'perinatal institute'. All of  Dr Logan's publications are on matters related to the creation of the BabyPlus.

The Science
We know that the prenatal environment you were exposed to can follow your throughout your life. Yet this mostlly relates to things that affect the baby directly via changes in the blood being filtered through the placenta. In terms of sound exposure - we know that babies recognise voices and music that they heard frequently while in the womb. There is no evidence to indicate that this effect is long lived or that it causes any neurological changes in the babies brain such as would be required to make them smarter. For example, one study found that when pregnant women had watched the soap opera 'Neighbours' daily during pregnancy, their babies became alert and calm when the theme song was played at 2 to 4 days post birth but that this response no longer occurred at 24 days post birth.
The BabyPlus attempts to claim that they are based on science and yet on their own website the only scientific evidence on any benefit of prenatal sound exposure is from their two own studies and these are from the 1990s. Not reported on their website is the fact that a review of the evidence in 2000 concluded that there was no benefit for providing additional prenatal auditory stimulation to the developing child and it was not recommended in view of the potential for harm.

So thehe BabyPlus relies entirely on two studies in its claims to be scientifically based. Both of these were published in the 'international journal of prenatal or perinatal research' which is not listed in this impact factor list or this one. Since its publication only Dr Logan's study has been cited by any other publication and this  was in the review that concluded no benefit. There has been no follow up research by anyone outside of the group.
Dr Logan's study involved only 12 babies so a ridiculously small sample size, particularly for a device that claims to have been used by over 3000 people. I was unable to access the study so am unable to comment any further on this study.
The 'clinical trial' however... yeah let's pick that apart.

The 'Clinical Trial'.
Well first of all, they list it  as an 'independent clinical trial' yet the lead (and apparently only) researcher appears to be a collaborator on the project.

  • It is a small study with a total of 31 participants.There is no reference to how many participants completed the study but they reported only receiving elementary school results from 7 from each group which would be a loss of almost 40% from the two treatment groups. 
  • The subjects came from both middle class and lower class background and included first time mothers and those with more than one child. They do not report on whether any of the mothers had family histories of learning problems or if they examined the mother or father's IQ at all. This is all particularly important in light of the next and most major issue.
  • There is no evidence that subjects were randomly allocated to each of the groups, in fact their wording 'subjects were divided into three groups' seems to indicate that it may not have been random. For all we know, the mothers whose demographics indicated their child was likely to have the best outcome were cherry picked for the treatment group.
  • There is also no evidence that the study was blinded. This is particularly important since the scale that they used is at least partially a self report measure. If the study was unblinded and the mothers in the treatment knew they were in, I would suspect they would be more likely to pick up on early first verbalisations.
  • The scale that was used the 'Clinical Linguistic and Auditory Milestone scale' is designed as a screening scale for children with language delays, that means its main purpose is to differentiate between 'normal development' and 'problematic development'. It is not designed to determine the skill level or intelligence of children in the 'normal range' and can not be used for this purpose. Furthermore the outcomes that have been reported on are almost entirely in the first year in spite of the fact that their  measurement scale is most useful over the age of 14 months. 
  • The outcomes that have to do with behaviour at birth have nothing to do with intelligence or neurological outcomes. In fact, a relaxed body at birth is probably a  negative indication.
  • Although the children who received their treatment were superior to the other children on all the measures in their results section (which I find suspicious), it is not reported if this difference was statistically significant. This makes it impossible to interpret what these results means.
  • The results section actually makes no sense. For example, they report that 75% of babies in the treatment group had a relaxed body at birth yet that translates to  8.25 babies. 
  • The range is not reported for the age issues making it impossible to determine what it is that is causing the variation of (I assume) the mean. Is the entire treatment group brighter than the control? Is there one very bright baby in the treatment group? One very slow baby in the control group? 

So obviously its a truly terrible study but there are two fundamental flaws that would apply even if it were legitimate. The first is that the study was conducted in Russia at a time of political upheaval. The women were probably under a great deal of stress and these results are not extrapolatable to the general population in any country that is not Russia.
The bigger issue and the issue with the whole concept really is that all the children reached their development outcomes within normal time frames. Most experts do not believe that the age at which a child reaches a developmental milestone is a good indicator of their overall intelligence if it is occurring within these normal time frames. Current consideration now is that intelligence has a lot more to do with how a child responds to their environment, including becoming bored of novel stimuli and the way in which they form and use strategies than it does with what age a child first pointed to their hand.
A review of their testimonials indicates exactly this. Proud parents of perfectly ordinary children.

Oh but it does no harm, everyone says and continue to run articles promoting it or stock it in their baby shops. Well I think it does actually.
First of all there's the chance that it actually does harm the foetus. Maybe they don't like having artificial heartbeats blasted at them, there's some evidence that they don't like having ultrasounds so it's not outside the realms of possibility or maybe they can't hear your voice over it and so lose linguistic exposure.
Second of all, it contributes to over parenting which is known to be harmful to children.
Lastly, it suggests that if you don't use them you are harming your baby, this increases stress levels which is known to be harmful to foetuses.
By the way, I do not mean by my last statement that you should buy this in order to reduce your stress level. Unlike essential baby I would suggest that if you are stressed out about your child's intelligence prior to them being born you work on reducing your stress levels via exercise, meditation or therapy if need be rather than inflicting an overpriced placebo on your unborn child.
Sorry if that seems harsh. Bad science gets me really steamed up.


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