One-Womb Schoolhouse

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One-Womb Schoolhouse

ointing to a clipping of a little boy taped to her vanity mirror, her other hand on her slightly bulging belly, Kim Seung-mi, 28, says, "My sister cut that picture out of a magazine; she said that looking at it would ensure I have a beautiful baby."

Ms. Kim then acknowledges that she doesn't really believe that staring at a picture of a beautiful baby will make her have one. But pregnant Koreans have done more or less the same thing for generations - look at beautiful things - in the name of taegyo, or "education of the fetus."

In a country where early childhood education is all the rage, where tots still in diapers are drilled with Korean alphabet flash cards, the notion of teaching the fetus comes as no surprise. Accordingly, the prenatal products market is flourishing: There are myriad gadgets designed to boost the fetus' chances of worldly success. Mothers buy tiny microphones to strap to their bellies to deliver stories recorded in English directly to their uterus. They hope that even as the unborn swim in amniotic fluid the tapes will engender English proficiency.

Obstetricians and scientists generally dismiss such attempts at intrauterine learning as ridiculous. It is already quite noisy in the womb, they note, with the heartbeat and the sounds of digestion surrounding the fetus.

"Adding sound like that merely increases the stress level of the fetus; it's better to have the mother read out loud," says Park Moon-il, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Seoul's Hanyang University Medical Center. Mr. Park is also the author of "Taegyo neun gwahak ida," or "Taegyo is Science."

Instead of noise, in fact, pregnant Koreans have traditionally been told to stay in quiet, serene places. They gleaned that from chiltaedo, or the seven rules of taegyo, traditional wisdom that dates back centuries and originates from the southern part of the peninsula. Rule number six says "Listen to the wind blowing through pine trees."

Granted, some of the rules are clearly based in superstition, such as "Avoid windows and doors during the second month." But many of them can only help the unborn, like the second rule: "Sit quietly, listen only to beautiful words and graceful music, memorize the phrases of wise men, write poetry or calligraphy." Such de-stressing activities that soothe the expectant mother improve conditions in the womb; indeed, scientists have determined that the fetus absorbs much of the stress experienced by the mother.

"Our traditional taegyo is based on looking, listening and feeling good things, keeping a positive outlook and moving carefully," says Mr. Park.

Perhaps the first classic text devoted to taegyo techniques was compiled in 1803 by a scholar known as "Ms. Lee of Sajudang." Based on her knowledge of taegyo and the experience of bearing four children who all turned out to be successful adults, she wrote "Taegyo Singi," or "New Writing on Taegyo."

The first chapter says, "Even if a teacher teaches well for 10 years, it cannot match the value of a mother's teaching in the womb for 10 months; and that 10 months of teaching by the mother is not as important as the husband and wife having the proper mind-set on the night of the union." Koreans refer to a full pregnancy term as 10 months because each month of the lunar calendar has 28 days and the human gestation period is about 280 days.

Ms. Lee's book, composed of 10 chapters, discusses the theories of taegyo, the ideal mental and physical states that pregnant women should aim for, and the foods they should eat and avoid.

Another contemporary advocate of taegyo, Kim Soo-yong, a professor of biophysics at Daejeon's Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, says, "The text also emphasizes the important role of fathers, and teaches that the whole family should protect the expectant mother so that she can concentrate on educating the child."

Mr. Kim has been studying the touted benefits of taegyo in tandem with the latest discoveries on the development of the brain.

"It is simply amazing that Ms. Lee advised expectant mothers to listen to music and poetry in the evening," says Mr. Kim, who says studies have shown that music can stimulate or relax the unborn and help them to learn motor skills. He added that taegyo prescribes that fathers also be active in educating the fetus because their voices, being deeper than the mothers', are better transmitted to the fetus. That advice was not lost on Ms. Lee, for she also stressed that fathers have an important role in the healthy development of the fetus, although she had no scientific proof to back it up.

What scientists are discovering about our brains supports the age-old practices of taegyo, its proponents say.

"The part of the brain responsible for emotions begins to really develop around the fourth month," Dr. Kim explains. Accordingly, taegyo advises that the family be especially considerate to the mother-to-be at about that time so the fetus is exposed to pleasant emotions.

A clinic in the Daelim district of Seoul offers a 12-week taegyo program for women, who begin it from about their 26th week, called Taegyo Academy. The course uses classical music to relax the participants, who are then encouraged to feel they are part of the music and envision a positive image of themselves. Other programs in the course include origami, storytelling and talking directly to the baby.

"Because the brain is formed in the womb, teaching the baby only after it is born is too late," says Mr. Kim, who recently developed his own "ten commandments of taegyo" incorporating both traditional practices and modern science.

The first nine rules are sensible enough, such as avoiding anger and keeping your posture straight even while sleeping. But the 10th is a tad stern: "If the parents do not practice taegyo, the child will not only lack skills, he may be born deformed or with many illnesses.

After birth, he may die early. Then who is to blame?"

by Kim Hoo-ran

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