Can the playing of rhythmic sounds to a foetus in the womb really produce a brighter, stronger, more alert child? Janet Mason tried out an American device that claims to deliver such results

It's not every parent who can say their child has completed its first term at school before day one of its official life. But back in 1993, when I was pregnant, I decided to put my unborn baby through a programme of "prenatal learning". She followed an intensive daily curriculum while still in the womb.

Prenatal learning has been brought to Britain from the US by Brent Logan, a developmental psychologist from Washington. Dr Logan is the inventor of BabyPlus, a sonic device that looks a little like a personal stereo. Worn on the pregnant woman's abdomen, clipped on to a belt or clothes, the device transmits a series of heartbeat-like sounds to the womb which become more complex as the pregnancy progresses. Dr Logan claims this "cardiac curriculum" stimulates the developing brain and so enhances the baby's intellectual potential.

The theory behind prenatal learning is that about 50 per cent of all foetal brain cells atrophy before the moment of birth, so it is important to grab them early if the child is to be born with "enhanced mental architecture". Used from a foetal age of about 20 weeks, the programme will, it is claimed, increase alertness and curiosity in the newborn, result in a longer attention span and increase physical strength. Dr Logan also says it leads to greater intelligence, social and creative skills and a better academic performance.

I first learnt about prenatal learning when I was 16 weeks pregnant and devouring books about parenthood. Although interested, I had my doubts: the US-style literature put me off with its talk of newborn babies emerging from the womb recognising their mother's voice, turning and immediately crying "Mama".

Nor was my scepticism helped by the knowledge that little "prelearners" are entitled to a personal diploma on completion of the course. I could visualise the graduation ceremony: a queue of babies dressed in nothing but mortar boards and nappies.

So I didn't make an instant decision to go for the cardiac curriculum. But having lost my first daughter to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, I was overcome with the desire to do everything I could for this baby - and this was one of the few things I could do, other than making sure I ate all the right foods.

So I became one of the first British parents to try the prenatal learning programme. (At that time, the sonic device was less sophisticated: it had to be attached to a personal stereo and came with a series of audiocassette tapes. In the updated version, the sounds are activated by a series of buttons and no personal stereo is needed.)

Here are some extracts from my diary at the time:

6 May - 20 weeks pregnant

Today I received a neat brown-paper package. It contained 16 tapes - the prenatal learning programme - and a fabric belt with Velcro endings which will expand as I get bigger. The belt contains the speakers which transmit sounds to the womb; there is a special socket to link them up to my personal stereo.

Apparently the sounds start off simple and become more complex as the moment of birth approaches. According to the instructions, I am to play one tape per week for one hour every morning and one hour every night until I am 36 weeks pregnant and then work backwards, putting my baby through a revision course leading to "B Day". (I once did an intensive course of similar length myself, but I was 21 at the time.)

I began my baby's first lesson after "verbally preparing it for learning" as primed, although I declined the invitation to say "Good morning my little one; it's playtime again, and Mommy has some new sounds for you." I could hear the tape quite clearly, which made me worry whether it was too loud for the baby. It is a strange alien sound: slow, rhythmic beats on a drum machine, a bit like a Luther Vandross number.

Prenatal learning is something so new to us in Britain. I'm not yet at ease with the idea of using it myself, let alone letting everyone else in on the joke.

20 May - 22 weeks

The tape's drum-beat sounds are becoming faster and more intricate. The baby is much more active and kicking a lot, but whether this is coincidence I don't know. My parents have come to stay so I have had to tell them about the tapes, with a strict warning not to ridicule the idea. Although we did have a bit of a laugh about the baby meeting all the other little graduates at a drinks party: "Oh really? I graduated in 1993 ..."

3 June - 24 weeks

The tapes are a good way of ensuring you stay still for certain parts of the day, although I sometimes do other things like washing-up. Apparently when the sounds have passed though my abdomen they sound exactly like my blood surging past the womb, except with more rhythm. I can see the baby's movements from the outside now. Scan tomorrow.

17 June - 26 weeks

From the scan they think we are having a girl, but they can't tell for sure because the baby had its legs closed! I begin thinking of names: Betty? Laura? The tapes are getting faster and faster. They sound like a BBC sound effect for galloping horses.

21 July - 31 weeks

My dedication to the tapes has slipped: I tend to play them for one hour a day in one go, instead of morning and night.

My first daughter was a very bright, lively baby and I didn't use the tapes with her. Can such a thing really have any effect? Is it a waste of money? If it does work, will I regret it? Will this child be so advanced it can't relate to children of its own age?

26 August - 36 weeks

I have reached the final lesson. I am meant to play this one for another week and then start working backwards through the last four. The baby is moving a lot when the tape is on. I keep thinking it will arrive early because it thinks it is more mature than it is.

9 September - 38 weeks

I feel outrageous movements when the tape is playing. According to the midwife the baby has a very strong heartbeat which accelerates as it moves its limbs to the sounds of the tape.

23 September - 40 weeks

I'm sitting drumming my fingers.Where are you, superbaby?

3 October - 40 weeks and 10 days pregnant

There you are! Hello little Laura 8lb 14oz Rose.

Laura is now 19 months old and hasn't left for university yet: what's gone wrong?

One of the claims made by Dr Logan is that newborn babies who have received regular prenatal stimulation are relaxed, calm, attentive and seldom cry. To be honest, I did not notice Laura being especially attentive at birth and she kept me awake all night for the first few weeks screaming with colic.

I do remember how amazing it was talking to her at the age of about two weeks. She looked into my eyes and made modulated "cooing" sounds as though holding a conversation. She soon developed a formidable attention span: at two months she would turn the pages of a book or study a toy for ages without becoming bored.

Laura's speech has developed very quickly: she can speak in short sentences and can pronounce whole words very clearly. She has also be-gun counting and singing snippets of songs. She copies every sound she hears, often very successfully, and already asks questions like "Where's Mummy gone?" or makes statements such as "Daddy's in the garden now".

I will never know whether Laura's rapid development of speech and language was a result of prenatal learning. My feelings that it may possibly work will always be tinged with scepticism. But if I decided to have another child, I would definitely use it again.

BabyPlus costs pounds 199. More information from BabyPlus UK Ltd, 1-7 Harley Street, London W1N 1DA (0171-637 1828).