Dad-to-be, do you know how important you are to your expected baby? Even before he’s born, you’re already playing a big role in his life just by loving him and making that felt through all the ways you care for his mother. Then there’s the touch of your warm hands on her belly; yes, he’s aware of that, too, as the June 2015 study “Fetal Behavioural Responses to Maternal Voice and Touch” found. “Stroking of the mother’s abdomen as a response to the kicking or positional movements of the fetus,” the researchers wrote, was found to be “a powerful stimulus, producing a range of fetal behavioural responses.” It’s a real interaction: he moves, you touch, he moves some more!
And then there’s your voice. Talking, laughing, singing, reading…he can hear you (in the third trimester or even earlier), and he’ll show you he recognizes your voice when he’s born. Please go back and read a couple of compelling anecdotes about this in our June 2015 post. We also mention the wonderful book Keys to Becoming a Father by Dr. William Sears, who discusses the ways a man can start forming a real and active bond with the baby before he’s born, including talking and reading to him.
He reports that some research shows that the fetus might even hear the deep male voice more clearly through the amniotic fluid than the mother’s voice. Working on that assumption, know that much of the research listed in our sidebar about the effects of the mother’s voice on her baby in the womb will also apply to the father’s voice. So talk, sing, read!
But wait—for a glimpse of the powerful influence a father can have on his baby, let’s jump ahead to after he’s born. An April 2017 study, “Father–Child Interactions at Three Months and 24 Months: Contributions to Children’s Cognitive Development at 24 Months,” has found that when fathers play an active role in babies’ early development (by playing and reading together), children perform better in cognitive tests at age two. “Even as early as three months,” a study author writes, “these father–child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development, and that really hasn’t been shown much before.”
How do fathers contribute differently to their children’s learning than mothers? The study said that previous “observational studies have suggested that even though parents display similarities in their interaction styles, father–child interactions have a distinct quality: more stimulating, vigorous, and arousing in comparison to mother–child interactions. Their interactive episodes promote their child’s risk-taking and exploration tendencies, which in turn may facilitate the development of children’s cognitive skills.”
A segment of the study’s observation of father–child interaction concentrated on reading, which especially interested us, and the authors report: “Our findings from the book session link to evidence which suggests that the provision of rich language experiences and educational references support cognitive and learning skills.” In other words, reading aloud to the youngest babies is very good for their development—in so many ways, as we’re learning from so many early-literacy sources—and it has a special flavor when it’s done by Dad!
So, if a father can provide “rich language experiences,” in his own, particularly “stimulating, vigorous” way, through reading to his baby right from the beginning, and if your baby is already hearing your distinctly fatherly voice from inside the womb, it’s safe to assume that you, Dad-to-be, are already playing that essential role in his development.
That takes care of the sciencey side of things. But the magic of bonding with the baby in the womb goes deeper than that. If you adopt a nightly story time during pregnancy, your voice, like his mother’s, will become familiar to the growing baby, and after he’s born, studies show that he’ll recognize and be comforted when he hears you “in person.”
He’ll also recognize the familiar patterns and rhyming vowels of stories he’s heard repeatedly from the womb, and you’ll be helping him develop early language, cognitive, and social skills. As a brand-new, maybe slightly stunned father, you’ll be able to experience this amazing connection right away, and at the same time watch its soothing effect on your newborn.
Reading to an unseen listener might feel funny at first, but you’ll find that sharing this special reading time with your partner and expected child will become a loving family routine, the cornerstone of family bonding for many years to come. And you won’t be alone: many dads are jumping on the prenatal-reading bandwagon. What better way to start finding and flexing your unique, irreplaceable fathering muscles?
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It’s been five whole years since we published our twin posts, Libraries, Our Early-Literacy Champions, Part 1 and Part 2. We needed back-to-back posts to report on all the exciting initiatives that libraries had been rolling out at that time to promote reading to babies right from birth.
We naturally took the opportunity back then to point out that all the benefits of this practice listed by the American Library Association and others are enhanced if parents start reading to their babies even before birth. One library-affiliated group we gushed about, the Family Reading Partnership in New York state, had already established a program specifically to encourage reading to babies in the womb—and Waiting for Baby is still going strong.
Well, five years later, we’re thrilled to find an explosion of library programs for expectant parents! First, watch this video about the Read to the Bump program in North Liberty, Iowa. Now check out that library’s fabulous page about its Womb Literacy (be still our hearts!) program, and don’t miss the info on the adorable Waddle Walk fundraiser mentioned in the video. And hey, pregnant storytime seems to be big in Iowa; here’s Iowa City Library’s wonderful Belly Babies page. Our nation’s capital is showing the way forward, too: DC Public Library’s STAR (sing, talk and read to baby) program includes the Expecting a Baby stage in its reading-level guide and book lists. You get the picture, and there are probably many more great examples springing up all over.
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Particularly exciting for us at the Reading Womb is the Early Literacy Initiative at the Esperanza Acosta Moreno branch of the El Paso, Texas, library. This program is dedicated to educating expectant mothers “on the impact of prenatal reading while developing a routine to jumpstart your child’s literacy. The library provides all of the materials necessary to introduce children to words and music essentially through prenatal storytime,” including our very own Can’t Wait to Show You: A Celebration for Mothers-to-Be. We could not be more proud and honored!
The most important aspect of this distinction is that the initiative was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission for 2017. We never knew about this pilot program until its lovely coordinator quietly put in her grant-funded order for a supply of books. What stronger testament to the clear and proven benefits of reading to babies in the womb could there be than the readiness of library organizations to foster and fund programs to teach young families about the practice?
Yes, the message is spreading: literacy can and should be nurtured not only in toddlers and babies but babies in utero, too. Abundant research over the last decade has shown that babies in the third trimester are an active audience. They can discern, remember, and learn what they hear from inside the womb. Learning doesn’t begin at birth but before birth, and that means early literacy work should now include pre-birth literacy, or, as we like to call it, preliteracy.
But the nice thing is that no “work” is required for expectant parents—just cozy, snuggly reading time with the baby bump. Although you can’t yet see your little one, she is raptly listening to and learning from your words. You don’t have to think about how those words are laying the foundation for her social and cognitive development. You’ll feel the love flowing through your words, and so will she—maybe even more if you practice amid the good vibrations at your local library.
So check out your library—does it offer prenatal story hour yet? If not, make the suggestion, and send your children’s librarian the link to this post!
It surely must be a sign of healthy changes in our culture that so much attention is being given to reading aloud. What’s more, the age of focus keeps getting younger: not only were school-age children found to benefit from regular storytime but preschoolers, then toddlers, and then babies. “Read, talk, sing to your baby!” has become a universal rallying cry among educators, literacy advocates, librarians, and parenting experts.
Now, at last, babies in the womb are being gathered into the reading circle. The world is coming to understand that, to quote The New York Times, “Language Lessons Start in the Womb.” That’s the name of a February 21 article in which renowned pediatrican-author Perri Klaus reports on a compelling new study of language in adopted babies.
The study, conducted in the Netherlands, found that adults who had been born in Korea but were adopted by Dutch families had a much greater ability to make Korean speech sounds than Dutch-born adults. This was true whether they’d been adopted before or after they’d started talking, which led the researchers to conclude that the language they heard before and soon after birth had affected their ability to distinguish and produce speech sounds. These findings build upon those of a 2012 study we’ve mentioned in a previous post in which Dr. Christine Moon found that English and Swedish newborns responded differently to the vowel sounds used in their native language than they did to those of the other language.
Add it all to the big basket of evidence (just scroll down our sidebar to find that) showing that your baby really can hear you from inside the womb, and that she’s already picking up on your unique voice, your laugh, your favorite song to sing in the shower, and all the sounds, rhythms, patterns, and melodies of your language. And if you’re a bilingual parent or couple, the more, the merrier: your mighty little baby will absorb the characteristics of both languages!
Now on to the benefits of reading aloud. First, see our previous National Reading Month posts here and here for some great facts and links. Then check out another great new article, this time in the Washington Post, which starts off with these wonderful words:
One of the most important things parents can do, beyond keeping kids healthy and safe, is to read with them. That means starting when they are newborns and not even able to talk, and continuing well beyond the years that they can read by themselves. Study after study shows that early reading with children helps them learn to speak, interact, bond with parents and read early themselves, and reading with kids who already know how to read helps them feel close to caretakers, understand the world around them and be empathetic citizens of the world.
The article quotes some very encouraging statistics from Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report, for instance that more than three out of four parents start reading aloud before their child is a year old. Forty percent of parents read aloud before their baby is three months old, and 62 percent of parents of young children are reading aloud five to seven days a week. See what we mean about all the attention being given to reading? The message is being heard!
And just think: all these powerful benefits of read-aloud time with your child can begin even before birth. In the last three months of pregnancy, when your baby’s brain and auditory system are already developed enough for her to hear and recognize sounds, you can start practicing this important reading routine and enjoying the feeling of sharing the love of language with your child.
If you’re a mom- or dad-to-be who’s intrigued by the idea of reading to your baby in the womb, we say: this is the month to give it a try! If you carry on through the rest of the pregnancy, we think you’ll be hooked. This is one of the best things you can do for your baby, right up there with prenatal nutrition and checkups.
The well-documented benefits of reading aloud to children and babies, combined with the wealth of scientific support for reading to babies in the womb, make it abundantly clear that It’s Never Too Early to Read to Your Baby! Start this joyful and valuable storytime routine right now, during Read-Aloud Month, when book lovers everywhere are celebrating with activities to spread the love of reading.
Do you need some tips to get started? Check out this post for a fuller exploration of Jim Trelease’s read-aloud insights.