VENUS TSE, like many mothers in Hong Kong, is eager to give her son, Shing-shing, a head start in life. So she began early - when he was still in her womb. From her fifth month of pregnancy onwards she followed a course of prenatal education sessions using a device strapped to her belly. Twice a day the gadget administered a series of heartbeat-type sounds to her baby - sounds that the product manufacturer claims will stimulate the developing nervous system and activate the child's brain in a way 'never before possible'. Four months later Shing-shing was born via C-section calm, quiet and alert. 'My son was born, with his eyes wide open and in the first few minutes after birth he seemed to know me and my husband very well. He didn't cry much, ate very well and has had a regular routine from the very beginning.' Now 101/2 months old, Shing-shing has met all the developmental milestones much earlier than the average child. 'At four months he started to say baba and now he can say mama. My daughter, Phoebe, only started saying baba at eight months,' says Tse. 'Shing-shing likes to listen to music and language tapes and he always knows where the sounds are coming from. Even at one-month-old his eyes would stare at the loudspeaker while he was listening and he could follow me and my sounds around the room.' As parents it's natural to want to give our children a head start in life but it's equally easy to fall prey to the fear that there must be something more we could be doing. Stores are stacked with products designed to enhance a baby's learning abilities and since the pioneering work of Anthony DeCasper in the 1980s, an increasing number of products focus directly on the unborn child. Tse used a product new to Hong Kong called BabyPlus. But there are others with equally grand claims. The WombSong Prenatal Sound System, another auditory stimulator, lets parents address their fetuses via a microphone, while the book Prenatal Classroom promises to be the Parents' Guide for Teaching Your Baby in the Womb. CDs such as Ultrasound - Music for the Unborn Child and Build Your Baby's Brain offer various forms of stimulation that will enrich a baby's mind. One Californian obstetrician runs a programme called Prenatal University, where parents follow a detailed conversation regimen to stimulate their fetuses. The programme literature says that if the recommended schedule of activities is followed correctly, the fetus will develop a pattern of activity and sleep that will continue long after birth. While some of these products focus on communication, interaction and deeper bonding, most are intended to awaken the fetus to higher levels of mental activity and the potential of accelerated development. The BabyPlus marketing pitch: 'You're never too young to learn. (In fact, you don't even have to be born)' is one such kind. The unit claims to strengthen connections in the growing brain of the fetus at a crucial time in its development and states that children who use the machine have an intellectual, developmental, creative, and emotional advantage from the time they are born. At a recent gathering of BabyPlus users, parents spoke positively about their experiences. Without exception the babies latched on to the breast easily, ate well, cried little and have been 'easy' since the day they were born. Kathryn York, another mother at the gathering, used the device on and off from 16 weeks onwards after searching the internet for ways to enhance her unborn baby's development. 'I wasn't sure if it would really have any effect but I thought that it couldn't do any harm. 'In the end I had a 55-hour labour that ended in an emergency C-section and Marcus was born calm and alert,' she says. 'Everyone was amazed. He had no problems latching on to feed and he could follow my voice, my husband's voice and even my mother's voice from the first days in the hospital. His concentration is excellent. At four months of age he would sit and listen attentively to Mother Goose. He'd sit perfectly still, very focused and engaged for a whole half hour.' While such testimonials can feed the fears of mothers who feel that they should be doing more for their unborn child, at Highgate House, the Waldorf International Pre-school, the advice given is very different. Here, the emphasis is on trusting and supporting the natural processes of development, both in pre-school education and during pregnancy. Senior teacher, Amanda Holroyd, strongly dismisses the need for any kind of prenatal educational device. 'From a Waldorf perspective, good nutrition, plenty of rest and quiet moments to connect to the life-force within are all that is required during pregnancy,' she says. 'These days we are obsessed with the idea that early means better: that early education means a more achieved adult. But I think that this is a misplaced belief. Why is it that we can no longer trust the natural processes? Why do we feel the need to hurry things up all the time?' Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, based his education system on the understanding that a child's mind develops its capacity for certain kinds of learning at definite ages and that to force a child to learn, for instance maths and reading, too early could be detrimental to the development of the whole being. 'Children can burn out,' Holroyd says. 'If they are forced to learn too much too early they can develop an excess of 'head' or mental energy. 'When they are very little, or when they are still unborn, the priority is their body, the growth and well-being of their body, their physical development.' Thomas Ho Kong-hung and Betty Ho Nga-ying, the couple who brought the BabyPlus product to Hong Kong, don't deny that nature does all the important work in fetus development, but see no problem in supporting and enhancing the process. They introduced the product to the territory last year after Betty used the unit during her third pregnancy. When their son, Edward, was born with his eyes wide open, alert and calm, the couple were amazed and decided they wanted to share the benefits with other Hong Kong parents. 'He looked and felt like a baby that was already one-month-old and he seemed alert, like he was saying to me 'who are you?',' Thomas says. 'He's always been a very reasonable child with a very good attention span. Now, at 19 months, he's holding a book and reading. He can count from one to 10 in French, Putonghua and English and has all the building blocks of word recognition. He shows all the positive signs of a baby with a special mind.' As Thomas mingles with adults and children at the gathering, he's clearly passionate about the product and its possibilities. 'I am a lawyer by profession and when parents ask me to show evidence that BabyPlus works I cannot do so. I cannot say for sure. But I look at all these children and I know that they have benefited - they are the evidence. 'My wife and I both love education and now we have the opportunity to meet with parents and guide them. I think the joy is not in making the money but in having all these amazing babies in my arms.'