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  Research: Can you hear me now?
'Belly talk' popular in U.S.


Some parents-to-be talk to their unborn child, read stories aloud and play classical music to bond and give the baby a head start on life. This uniquely American pregnancy practice, "belly talk," is the subject of study by a U-M anthropologist.
Researcher Sallie Han and her daughter, Sabrina. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

"It's one of the ways expectant parents here start to think of their unborn children as persons who are part of their family," says Sallie Han, researcher with the Alfred P. Sloan Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). Communicating with the unborn is common among Americans but rare in other cultures, she says.

Unlike baby talk, forms of which are found in most cultures—often as a simple, high-pitched tone reserved for young children—belly talk usually sounds like regular speech. Sometimes it is spontaneous, but often it is initiated in response to fetal kicks or other movements ("You are busy today").

Belly talk involves more than just speech, Han says. It also includes reading and playing music to the unborn child, rubbing, poking or prodding the pregnant belly, and interpreting fetal kicks and other movements as communications from the expected baby. Many parents-to-be give their unborn children names, or at least refer to the baby as "he" or "she" instead of "it."

Expectant dads also seem to regard belly talk as a way to feel an emotional bond with the developing child, Han says. Belly talk allows men to participate more actively in the pregnancy experience and helps bridge the distance that expectant fathers often feel from the unborn child, she says.

As part of her doctoral dissertation examining the beliefs, expectations and experiences of first-time mothers, Han has been conducting in-depth ethnographic fieldwork with 15 middle-class Midwestern pregnant women and many of their partners, interviewing them repeatedly to document their monthly progress.

In addition, she has conducted participant-observation and informal interviews with pregnant women and couples attending four different childbirth preparation courses, prenatal yoga and pregnancy massage classes, a hospital-sponsored birth fair, and other community events and settings.

She has talked with pregnant women while they are shopping and observed at more than 100 appointments with women receiving prenatal care, more than 50 ultrasound appointments, and at genetic counseling sessions. Her goal: to learn how pregnant women in the United States actively create an emerging sense of kinship with their unborn child, through everyday activities such as eating, exercise, prenatal care, shopping and belly talk.

"These are practices that we take for granted as natural and ordinary. I hope my research can open our eyes to the fact that these practices, as well as the beliefs and values that they reflect, actually are remarkably complicated products, or constructions of our culture and society," Han says.

Besides bonding with the expected baby, Han found that belly talk sometimes has another function. In some ways, it serves as an extension of the peculiarly American emphasis on giving children the best possible start in life, beginning even before they are born.

"By reading to their unborn children and playing music for them, some parents feel they may be contributing to their child's eventual success in life," she says. "There's a lot of interest in what some child development researchers call 'prenatal education.' But most of the parents I interviewed were also very concerned about pushing their children too hard."

Han, who recently gave birth to her only child, engaged in belly talk while studying it in others. "As you're sitting there with a big belly, it's hard to believe that a baby is really inside. You know this is the case, you feel movement and you see the baby's image on ultrasounds, but still, it seems implausible. Talking to the baby helps to make it real."

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