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.
We talked recently about Deepak Chopra’s beautiful book, Magical Beginnings, Enchanted Lives: A Holistic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. Another thing we love about this book is that Deepak devotes so much attention to bonding with your baby, both before and after birth. For example . . .
“Use all five senses to connect with your baby and create a nurturing environment for both of you.”
In our August 2016 post, we mentioned the very real sensory connection mothers have with their babies in the womb that researchers have been discovering over the years. For instance, this fascinating BBC article delved into research that “supports the idea that babies learn taste preferences before they are born” and why this link between mother and baby (human and animal) likely developed to enhance newborn survival. This Science Daily article cites earlier studies that showed that babies’ sense of smell also develops in the womb.
What about the sense of touch? Well, a June 2015 study, “Fetal Behavioural Responses to Maternal Voice and Touch,” reinforced findings of earlier research that found that “Newborns preferentially respond to maternal voice hours after birth, suggesting that the fetus is able to detect stimuli in utero and form memories of them.” Yes! We never get tired of hearing our message corroborated by experts!
This study is especially interesting in that it also measured (through ultrasound) fetal response when pregnant mothers touched their
baby bump. The researchers conclude, “Overall results suggest that maternal touch of the abdomen was a powerful stimulus, producing a range of fetal behavioural responses.” We love how they put their findings into a family context:
Mothers, fathers and other family members talk and even sing to the fetus throughout pregnancy with communicative intent. Many report changes in the fetal behaviour as a response to such communication. . . . Similarly to talking to the fetus, most mothers and even fathers attempt to communicate with and regulate the behaviour of the fetus via stroking of the mother’s abdomen as a response to the kicking or positional movements of the fetus. Even the expecting mothers’ mood is affected by massaging the abdomen. . . .
And this brings us back to Deepak’s important advice. We know now that babies can hear, taste, smell, and feel from inside the womb, and scientists also find that they’re sensitive to light as early as the fourth month. But you also create a “nurturing environment” for yourself and your baby in utero simply by connecting to your own five senses.
Revel in the flavors of your breakfast, your fruit, your tea. Feast your eyes on the kaleidoscopic colors at the farmer’s market. Moon around the florist’s shop taking deep, ecstatic breaths. Luxuriate in the bliss of a warm ray of sun slanting through the window. And lie back in the comfiest chair in the house and let your sweetie give you and baby-to-be some loving touch. All this (plus the resulting release of endorphins, or feel-good hormones) will communicate to your child, “All is well and calm and safe. Rest, relax, and grow, and soon you’ll join us in this beautiful world.”
If you foster calm and peace in your baby’s environment even before he’s born, the effects can last through the birth, the newborn weeks, the first year, and on into childhood. A “magical beginning” indeed!
Now please forgive a shameless plug for our book, Can’t Wait to Show You: A Celebration for Mothers-to-Be, which takes you through a journey of the five senses with your baby in the womb. Read aloud these words that let you indulge your happy anticipation, and enjoy the colorful collage-style illustrations, and you’ll truly be connecting with your senses and your unborn child.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the ordinary little miracle that is happening right now. You’re pregnant. Countless women (and females of all mammal species) have been in this condition for eons. Today 4.3 babies are born on earth every second!
But no one else is carrying your baby.
And no one’s experience with this amazing process is quite like yours. So indulge yourself for a minute and really feel the wonder of it. Breathe a sigh of gratitude. You’ve been caught up in the excitement and the worries, the preparations and shopping, the fascinating new shapes your body is taking and all the strange (sometimes overwhelming) new sensations you’re feeling. Meanwhile, this little being is riding along inside you, enjoying the bounces and the taste of your breakfast . . . and (by the third trimester) eavesdropping on everything you say!
Yes, you are already communicating with your baby. She knows the rhythms of your body and your sleep cycles, your movements and stillness and, most important, the sound of your voice. Compelling research shows that their mother’s voice plays a crucial role in babies’ growth and development in the womb. Long before you hold your baby in your arms, you begin nurturing her through the power of your unique voice.
Deepak Chopra writes about this connection in his beautiful book, Magical Beginnings, Enchanted Lives: A Holistic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. “The process is one that is called neuro-associative conditioning,” he says. “Your nervous system anchors your emotional well-being to the vibration of the sound.” He also says that “the rhythm and pitch of human voices are clearly perceptible in the womb…. An unborn child becomes familiar with his mother’s voice long before he emerges from the womb.”
This early connection that expectant and new parents sense intuitively is now being proven by science. Research shows that babies in the third trimester can hear, recognize, and even remember sounds—especially their mother’s voice—and this stimulation plays a vital role in their development. Researchers at Harvard University Medical School, for example, found that an expectant mother’s voice has a strong influence on the language centers in a baby’s brain. According to the study, a mother’s voice provides “the auditory fitness necessary to shape the brain for hearing and language development.” So, not only does talking to your bump help you to bond with your little one, but it actually helps her brain to grow!
Studies also show that reading to babies in utero is particularly powerful. Newborns have been found to respond to rhythmic, rhyming stories that were read to them regularly in the last weeks before birth. When your newborn baby cries, you can read her a poem or story you’ve practiced repeatedly during pregnancy and she will immediately be stilled by the familiar beat and the beauty of the voice she has been listening to for months. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one more way of comforting your new baby when she gets fussy? If you start talking, singing, and reading to your baby in the womb, you’ll see her face light up when she hears you in person! Until then, you can know that she is already loving, and learning from, the sweet sound of her mother’s voice.
“If we aim to create a nonviolent world,” says Deepak in his book, “we must begin with love and nourishment in the womb.” In other words, if you foster calm and peace in your baby’s environment even before she’s born by communicating with her consciously, the effects can last through her childhood, perhaps carrying that deep-seated feeling of well-being throughout her life. Imagine a world where all babies experienced this “magical beginning”! It could become a reality, starting with you. Now, that opportunity is a lot to be thankful for.
We at the Reading Womb are so grateful to all of our readers, and everyone who has supported Can’t Wait to Show You: A Celebration for Mothers-to-Be, the first board book specially created to read to the baby in the womb.
To show our appreciation we’d like to offer you $3 off the price of Can’t Wait to Show You through the end of November. Just visit our Amazon page and use promo code SQN736UN at checkout. Here is a taste of the baby-love dreams that await you . . .
We stand corrected! A July 2016 article on BBC.com, Babies Start Learning Even Before They Are Born, presents a roundup of recent research findings that demonstrate the causes and effects of prenatal learning, including among different animal species. We’re always excited to read about new studies in this area, and we’re delighted to find that our February 2014 post, It’s Only Natural, contains an inaccuracy:
A very important quality that separates mammals from other creatures is our strong desire to protect and care for our young. Unlike a turtle, who lays her eggs in the sand, leaving the tiny baby turtles to return to the sea and fend for themselves alone, we mammals form a bond with our young — even before they are born — that continues for our whole lives.
We go on to tell the heartwarming story of Bella, a pregnant dolphin who whistled to her baby before and after birth, establishing not only a mother–baby bond but also a vocal signal that would be crucial to the newborn’s survival. Well, according to the BBC article, this beautiful instinct is not only a characteristic of mammals. Mother birds of various species have actually been found to communicate with their chicks still in the egg in just the same way Bella did! And fish, frogs, and salamanders have demonstrated in-egg learning too. Whether it’s telling baby animals what their mother sounds like or what their predators smell like, prenatal learning is clearly fundamental to much of the animal kingdom.
It’s now broadly acknowledged that a human baby is sensing the world from inside the womb, through sound, touch, and hormone transfer, for example. The BBC article begins by discussing how food flavors are passed from mother to baby, which is another survival mechanism shared by many animals. The discussion naturally turns to that most compelling learning capacity of all: prenatal language development. In the last trimester, babies’ ears have developed enough that they can hear, recognize, and remember sounds — especially speech sounds, and especially their own mother’s speech sounds.
The article describes some of the research we’ve mentioned in which newborns’ preferences are found to be the result of their experience before birth, so that, for instance, they prefer their mother’s voice and recognize sounds typical of their parents’ language(s) over those they weren’t exposed to in utero. Really, it’s only a variation on Bella’s natural wisdom, as well as her innate urge to bond with her little one. As with dolphins and so many animals, human family and social bonding is part of our intricate survival system, in which language plays a central role. It’s no wonder we start learning the fundamentals of language well before we’re born. As the BBC article concludes, “Science is revealing that what we learn before entering the world may give us more of a head start than once thought.”
A March 2016 article on PRI.com, Our Ability to Speak Doesn’t Begin with Our First Words. It Begins in the Womb, focuses on this, our favorite subject. It describes a 2015 Finnish study and current Canadian research that again have explored the effects of native versus nonnative speech sounds on newborns, and the implications for prenatal learning. The article quotes researcher Janet Werker of the University of British Columbia: “A lot of language crosses the uterine wall, and so by the time the baby is born, it’s not an inexperienced listener.”
Echoing the “head start on learning language” theme of the BBC article, this one goes a step further by describing the benefits to parents of understanding that, in Werker’s words, “their baby is interested in the world around them, and is interested in learning from the first moments of life. . . . And we like to think that this might make them treat their babies as the curious, involved little beings that they are.”
We couldn’t agree more! Even if expectant parents feel like they have to take it on faith that their little one is hearing and responding to their voices before birth, we know this will become common knowledge in due time, fueled by scientific findings like these and by mounting anecdotal evidence from new parents. We love the concluding words of the PRI article: “Doing well in the world starts with doing well in the womb. So you should talk to the baby bumps. . . . They will thank you later — in the words they learn from you.”
Yes! Talk, sing, and read to your bump. What better way to make this loving, nurturing connection with your baby in the womb than with a bedtime story? A rhyming and rhythmic story, read in your voice every night, will become as familiar to him as a dolphin’s whistle or a nesting wren’s warble — and will be just as comforting and reassuring to him after he’s born. Your own innate, natural instinct to communicate and bond with your baby can be reinforced by establishing a routine centered around language, right from the beginning. Your voice, plus a beautiful book, are all you need for a natural language bond.
And if reading aloud to an unseen audience doesn’t quite feel natural to you yet, just choose a book that makes you happy, whose colorful illustrations stimulate your feel-good hormones, and whose words help you to make a deep connection with your child. The combination of the engaging language and your familiar, loving voice will enhance the bond between you and your little one. By creating a relationship grounded in caring dialogue, you will naturally foster your child’s amazing drive to explore, understand, and communicate with his world.
The very best book for the purpose, we just have to say, is our own Can’t Wait to Show You: A Celebration for Mothers-to-Be. It’s not only rhythmic and rhyming, not only beautiful, but even shaped to snuggle around that “curious, involved little being” curled up inside you, listening raptly, learning avidly, and loving already.
You just heard the wonderful news: someone you love is having a baby and it’s time to celebrate! What better way to show your excitement about the anticipated arrival than to throw a baby shower? Women have gathered to honor and support expectant mothers since Biblical times (think The Red Tent). But our current-day baby showers more closely resemble those that began in the Victorian period, when tea parties were held by female family members after the baby was born (because discussing a pregnancy publicly was taboo at the time).
How times have changed! These days guests at a baby shower are often clued in to the gender and even the name of the expected little one. Another trend is the Baby Sprinkle, a toned-down shower held for second-time moms. There are now showers for expectant Grandmas and—if you think you’ve heard it all—the Daddy Shower is gaining in popularity. Yes, it’s a gathering for the expectant father and his male friends only, an idea that would have had those Victorian ladies squirming in their corsets!
Celebrating the pending arrival of a child comes in many interesting and surprising forms, but the heart of the matter remains a strong desire to support the new family as they embark on their journey into parenthood. Experienced mothers will use the baby shower as an opportunity to share advice about pregnancy and newborns. The gifts they give reflect their wisdom about what a new mother and baby need at the beginning of their lives together. In the times of The Red Tent, the traditional gift to a pregnant woman or new mother might be a figure of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and fertility (often given in secret, since idolatry was considered a grave sin at the time). Today, it’s soft onesies, musical mobiles, and glow-in-the-dark pacifiers, and although these offerings could not be more different, they all reflect the desire to give the new mother something she values, something that will support her as she eases into her new role.
As essential and thoughtful as these gifts are, each has a particular period of usefulness. They’ll be valued and enjoyed but very quickly outgrown and put aside. What then can you give the expectant mother that will truly express the love and support you feel and will have a timeless effect? Well, step into the children’s section of your favorite bookstore and your search will soon be over. Not only will you be giving a beautiful gift, but you’ll also inspire the new family to embrace storytime, that snuggly sacred ritual that will be treasured throughout the child’s life. By giving books you are sharing something so important, so enduring that it could quite possibly have an impact on generations to come.
Do you know what a woman does right after she finds out she’s pregnant (well, perhaps after screaming)? She reads! Pregnant women absorb information like sponges when it comes to their new role as Mommy. What better way to fulfill that need than by giving a book as a gift topper at a baby shower? I loved reading the books experienced moms told me were must-haves. It helped me feel like I wasn’t in this alone, like there really was a village behind me. You could even do cute things around a book-themed baby shower that have been trending recently, like a stack-of-books cake, a themed menu (Dragons Love Tacos), and even a guest book signing by a beloved (local!) author.
—Kristin Quinn, Misadventures in Mommyhood blog
It seems as though this idea is catching on, big time. The brilliant new trend of book-themed baby showers is spreading across the globe as more and more people realize the power of giving the gift of storytime. Guests are asked to bring a book to the expectant mother, sometimes in lieu of a card, favorite babies’ books are used in table settings, and images of kids’ classics are used to decorate the room—and even the cupcakes! The goal is to stock the new family’s bookshelf with a variety of titles, gifts the child will love for his entire life. Unlike clothes and toys, the love of reading cannot be outgrown. As a matter of fact, it grows alongside the child, changing and adapting throughout his lifetime, bringing new gifts and surprises all along the way.
This wonderful Book Baby Shower trend might have come about as a result of all attention given recently to the importance of reading. From Reach Out and Read to Too Small to Fail to Reading Rockets and, of course, your local children’s librarian, the message is spreading: Read to your child, even for just 15 minutes a day. Supported by lots of research, these early-literacy advocates say that daily storytime exposes children to new vocabulary, develops reading and language skills, promotes brain growth, inspires empathy, and encourages family bonding. Now that’s a gift!
There’s yet another benefit of giving books to an expectant mother. Those adorable little baby socks can be admired, but they can’t actually be used until baby arrives. Books, on the other hand, are a gift the expectant mother can start sharing with her little one right away! There’s a heap of research supporting the incredible benefits of reading to babies in utero. (Please scroll down the sidebar for links to studies, articles, and videos.) It’s generally understood that babies hear their mother’s voice during the last trimester, and remember and are soothed by the familiar story after they’re born. Those final weeks before baby arrives are the perfect time for parents-to-be to practice reading aloud, getting used to reciting bouncy Dr. Seuss rhythms and putting some silly expression into a Sandra Boynton story. This is the time to make bedtime stories a nightly routine that they’ll look forward to as much as their baby will.
Beautiful books for babies are abundant, and here are some tips for choosing the perfect Book Baby Shower gift. All the research shows that babies, inside the belly and out, drool over words that are rhyming, rhythmic, and repetitive, and get all gaga if the words are spoken by their mother. So pick a lovely, colorful book with simple poetic text. For some beautiful baby book choices, please see our December 2014 post, The Perfect Gift for Your Expectant Loved One. And of course we have to put in a word for our own Can’t Wait to Show You, created specially for reading to babies before and after birth.
How about a fun little extra to use as a party favor? Here’s a “Books We Read to Baby” reading log for expectant parents that you can print on cardstock and include in your book-themed decorations or goody bags.
Not only is March National Reading Month, but March 2nd is Read Across America Day, and March 4th is World Read Aloud Day! If you are an expectant parent feeling intrigued by the idea of reading to your baby in the womb, we say: Give it a try on Wednesday, March 4! If you carry on through the rest of the month, we think you’ll be hooked. And this is one of the best things you can do for your baby, right up there with prenatal nutrition and healthcare.
World Read Aloud Day, celebrated annually on the first Wednesday in March, was initiated by LitWorld, an international literacy advocacy organization. According to LitWorld, this day “motivates children, teens, and adults worldwide to celebrate the power of words, especially those words that are shared from one person to another.” We heartily approve of LitWorld’s mission (the emphasis is ours):
We cultivate a love of reading and writing because having the chance to experience that love is how literacy grows best and strongest. Literacy for LitWorld is not just about learning the alphabet or phonemic practice; it is also about cultivating creative expression, about the power of the read-aloud to immerse children in the power of language, and about putting young people’s stories out into the world, dignifying their experience and giving them a voice in the world.
Yes! And that powerful read-aloud time with your child can begin even before birth. In the last three months of pregnancy, when the baby’s brain and auditory system are already developed enough for him 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. The benefits of in utero reading to babies’ cognitive development and language skills have been well documented over the last several years (just check out the Research section in the sidebar).
So we’re really excited to tell you about the latest contribution to this body of work, just reported on February 24. This study, led by the Harvard Medical School, showed that a baby’s brain development is enhanced by hearing its mother’s voice and heartbeat before full gestation. “We theorize,” say the researchers, “that exposure to maternal sounds may provide newborns with the auditory fitness necessary to shape the brain for hearing and language development.” We’re right there with you!
All the benefits of reading aloud to children that LitWorld so passionately advocates, 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 National Reading Month! Book lovers everywhere are commemorating this special month with activities to spread the love of reading, and the National Education Association celebrates Read Across America on March 2 with fun events in schools, libraries, and community centers around the U.S.
Do you need some tips to get started? Please see this post for a fuller exploration of Jim Trelease’s read-aloud insights, but here are a few for now:
- Use plenty of expression when reading: You can use your voice to reflect the meaning of the text. Use a soft voice for gentle characters and moving moments. Use a loud voice to show strong emotion or to emphasize adventure or excitement.
- Adjust your pace to fit the story: Read slowly to bring attention to beautiful language and imagery. Read more quickly to show movement and action.
- Preview the book by reading it to yourself ahead of time: This way, you’ll be more comfortable when you start to read it aloud. Reading it to yourself a few times will help you plan how the story might sound when it is spoken.
A special note to all you expectant mothers: We wish you a happy and peaceful Mother’s Day!
During this exciting time, don’t forget how important it is for you to relax and enjoy the moment. As we all know, stress can have a strong impact on our physiological and psychological well-being, and recent studies suggest that it’s also harmful to your unborn baby. Researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany found that when a pregnant woman was exposed to stress, her baby’s stress-hormone level also increased, and this British study made similar conclusions.
Conversely, relaxing is good for your baby—very, very good. If you just sit in a comfortable place and breathe, you’re doing the most important thing of all, nurturing and caring for your baby. As you take each deep breath in, be aware that you’re also breathing for your baby. She’s taking in that life-giving oxygen and it’s nourishing her and helping her to grow. Now, be aware of the rhythm of your heart beating. Each beat brings invigorating blood to your baby, making her stronger every moment.
When you add your soothing voice to the mix, reading a calming, rhythmic story, you have the formula for perfect relaxation for both mother and child. As you read you’ll find yourself feeling more calm as your heartbeat and breathing slow down. This relaxation will immediately pass to your baby; you’ll both feel connected, soothed, and peaceful, and you’ll know that you’re accomplishing the most valuable task of all.
So, go ahead, Mom-to-Be. Stop, breathe, relax . . . and dream.