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Little ones look forward to this special time each night; it’s a sacred routine that makes them feel safe and loved, and the benefits of storytime for the child and the family as a whole are immeasurable. But is this idyllic scene becoming a thing of the past?
Recent research in both the United States and the UK shows that bedtime stories are on the endangered list. The Guardian reports that in “a poll of 2,000 mothers with children aged 0 to 7 years, only 64% of respondents said they read their children bedtime stories, even though 91% were themselves read bedtime stories when young. Only 13% of parents read to their children every night.”
The reasons cited included “being too stressed out” and “not enough time,” but the most dismaying was that children had trouble staying engaged with books when so many other options were available to them. Now, the chances are pretty good that if you are a follower of a blog called The Reading Womb, you are as unsettled by this information as we are.
As a reader, you probably intuitively knew that there are benefits to reading to children regularly, and we can support your hunches with a few hard facts:
· Children who are read to regularly and exposed to many words from an early age perform better in school and are all around better adjusted emotionally and socially than children who were not read to. Drs. Hart and Risley’s study about this has gotten a lot of fresh attention lately, inspiring initiatives all over the country to increase the number of words babies and children hear. Please see our January 2014 post all about it.
· Hearing stories from the very beginning creates a multitude of neural pathways in the brain. Says Dr. Reid Lyon, Ph.D., chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, MD.: “There’s a clear indication of a neurological difference between kids who have been regularly read to and kids who have not.”
· Snuggling up with Mom or Dad increases levels of cortisol, the anti-stress hormone, and oxytocin, “the bonding hormone,” in children. Not to mention the benefits for Mom and Dad—research shows that snuggling also reduces blood pressure and heart rate!
So, in short, family storytime makes kids socially comfortable, smart and healthy. All parents want what’s best for their children, don’t they? So what’s going on here?
We’re thinking this could have something to do with it!
In that same survey we mentioned earlier, “Nearly half of the parents surveyed said their children found television, computer games and other toys more diverting, while 4% said their children do not own any books at all.” Oh, dear.
Fisher Price recently introduced a baby-product line called Apptivity Entertainers, or Apptivity Play and Learn, which they describe as “a grow-with-me seat for baby that’s soothing, entertaining, and has a touch of technology, too.” We say it’s a screen dressed up like a baby toy, but either way, there’s a really good chance that this baby is not going to be begging Mommy and Daddy to read another story when an iPad, iPod, or other electronic device is available. Look how this baby is more interested in the small screen than his own Mommy’s beautiful face!
We know technology is here to stay—and it’s an amazing and helpful phenomenon in most cases, in its proper time and place. Most children are going to engage in some kind of screen time, and much of it is good, but it’s our job as the grownups to ensure that there’s a balance between the zesty stimulation of electronic bells and whistles . . . and the rich, organic simplicity of illustrated paper pages being turned slowly by soft human hands and narrated by a loving human voice.
March is National Reading Month, and organizations all over the U.S. are commemorating it with activities to spread the love of reading. The National Education Association celebrated Read Across America Day on March 3 with fun events in schools, libraries, and community centers around the country. And the nonprofit organization Read Aloud 15 Minutes, whose mission is to “make reading aloud every day for at least 15 minutes the new standard in child care,” has gone a step further and declared March National Read Aloud Month! The organization’s central message is that . . .
When every child is read aloud to for 15 minutes every day from birth, more children will be ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, more children will have the literacy skills needed to succeed in school, and more children will be prepared for a productive and meaningful life after school.
Hear, hear! And of course we have to add that this 15 minutes of reading 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 her to hear and recognize sounds, you can start practicing this important reading routine and start enjoying the feeling of sharing the love of language with your child.
We gave our friends the opportunity to test-drive our new book, Can’t Wait to Show You, while it was still in prototype form. They soon got used to the rather odd feeling of reading to an unseen audience and began to make an emotional connection to the story itself. The pleasure of the rhymes and rhythms was multiplied by their knowledge that the baby inside was taking it all in and might remember it after birth.
Lo and behold, when their baby was born they soon got a chance to see the magic for themselves. They read Can’t Wait to Show You to the newborn on a fussy day and were amazed to see him settle down and attend to the familiar words. Reading time continues to be a cherished part of their day and these proud parents say this is one of their little boy’s favorite books. This new family wholeheartedly agrees, It’s Never Too Early to Read to Your Baby!
So, from all your little friends at Belly Books, Happy National Reading Month!
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.
A fascinating discovery was made recently about the special bond that mother dolphins create with their babies while they’re still in the womb. The aquarium staff at Six Flags Discovery Park in California started noticing that Bella, a pregnant bottlenose dolphin, was already sending out her “baby whistle” as she swam alone in the tank. It seemed Bella was talking to herself . . . or was she?
Once the baby dolphin was born, Bella continued her baby whistle, and the little one responded right away by coming to her side. It became clear that the prebirth baby whistle was Bella’s way of teaching her baby to recognize her voice so that she could call to it immediately, protecting the vulnerable baby right from the moment of its birth. Dolphins understand something innately that many of us in our culture are just coming around to: A baby in the womb in the last trimester can hear what’s going on in the world outside, and the opportunities for bonding before birth are countless. Pretty exciting, isn’t it?
Bella’s story illustrates how very natural it is to connect with our expected little one, and what better way to do that than by beginning a reading routine that, like Bella’s baby whistle, will be recognized and responded to by your baby at birth? You can actually begin a bedtime-story ritual during your last trimester that will condition your newborn to quiet down, settle in, and get sleepy. A simple, beautiful, rhyming and rhythmic story, read in your familiar voice, is just what is needed to regulate your baby’s alpha waves, slow his breathing and pulse, and get him primed for tuck-in time.
Begin this special bedtime routine now, while your baby is still curled up inside you, and you’ll reap the benefits when he is born. Research shows that having a regular bedtime helps babies to become conditioned to fall asleep each night, so set a regular time to slow your day down and read to your expected little one. Get cozy, relaxed, and comfortable and your baby will, too. Read in your regular voice (your baby has the best seat in the house) and know that you are establishing a beautiful and natural routine that will enrich, nurture, and support your child’s well-being in so many ways.
If you’re considering using an e-book for bedtime reading with a child, well, research says that it just won’t do. According to a recent National Literacy Trust study, children who engage with e-books have less engagement with a story and are less likely to grow up to be readers. Turns out that a story on a tablet is perceived by children, especially young ones, as more of a gaming than a reading experience. Additional research says that the screen time before bed interacts negatively with brain waves, getting them wound up instead of quieted down to alpha. Not exactly an effective way to get your child settled down to sleep.
Of course, those who love reading know there’s nothing like a real, holdable paper book. When you read a real book with your newborn, turning the pages and looking at the bright illustrations, you will get his visual as well as his auditory attention. You’ll also be setting him up with those prereading skills we’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, such as holding a book right-side-up and reading from left to right.
If you want the very best reading experience, and the most natural one for your baby before and after birth, there’s no substitute for the real thing. By establishing a quiet bedtime routine now, centered around your loving voice and a beautiful storybook, you will be delighted to find that you have a child who looks forward to winding down at bedtime, and whose biorhythms will be accustomed to settling down as he snuggles in at the same time each night.
So let’s get back to Bella, our dolphin. She knows how natural it is to talk to her baby in the womb—nothing fancy required, just her voice and her desire to connect with her little one. Your own perfectly natural instinct to communicate and bond with your baby can be reinforced by establishing a routine centered around literacy and language, right from the beginning. Research says that both babies in the womb and newborns respond to and learn best from text that is rhyming and rhythmic, and also that the baby knows your voice best. So your voice, plus a beautiful book, is the recipe for a natural language bond. We have just the thing . . .
Listen up, expectant parents! You want to raise a child who is well adjusted and socially comfortable, and who does well in school, right? Well, a study that’s been in the news these days says that the single most important thing you can do to help your child’s learning is to talk, talk, and then talk some more.
Sounds easy, right? And it is. Doctors Nancy Hart and Todd Risley found in their 1995 study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of American Children, that the more words a child hears before age three, the more successful he or she will be both socially and academically. The kids who got a head start by hearing lots of words before age three stayed ahead all through their school years, and those who heard fewer stayed behind. Simple as that: There is a direct correlation between the amount you talk to your child and his or her success in school.
Our August 2011 post, Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me, focused on Hart & Risley way back before it was hot. We’re thrilled to see that this study is now getting a great deal of attention from both educators and policymakers. Even President Obama mentioned it in a recent speech on economic policy in which he talked about the importance of addressing the disparity in the number of words that families expose their children to.
Two big cities have jumped on the Hart & Risley bandwagon. The University of Chicago’s Thirty Million Words initiative is “an innovative parent-directed program designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future.” It’s been closely watched by policymakers who want to see if bridging the word gap will measurably increase the school success of Chicago children. In a similar program in Rhode Island, called Providence Talks, the city of Providence was awarded a huge grant by the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge to measure the number of words its children hear before the age of three, and then to follow up by coaching families on how to “increase family conversation” and thereby improve kids’ readiness for and success in school.
These and other initiatives that are cropping up around the country are grounded in the Hart & Risley research. Add to this the wealth of studies that clearly show that babies hear and learn language before birth (check our sidebar for a thorough listing). Further contributions to this research are currently being made by Chinese and Canadian scientists, as this article discusses.
A recent TIME Magazine article by Lisa Guernsey ties all of these findings together very nicely. Calling this rich field of study “the hot new thing in early education,” Guernsey says it’s all about words. “Talk to your baby and you close the education gap, goes the theory. Early language experiences, myriad studies show, help form the foundation for children’s learning and their success in school.”
What did we tell you? It’s never too early to talk to your baby! Clearly, there is no better time to start talking to your baby than when she is in your womb. The words you say now will contribute to your child’s overall language development, and strong language skills translate into academic success. It doesn’t even matter what you feel like telling your baby-to-be, because the sheer number of words is the decisive factor, according to Dr. Risley. But so many studies have shown that rhythmic, rhyming language is especially well absorbed by the baby in the womb, and what better way to deliver it than by reading nursery rhymes, or Dr. Seuss, or any fun, simple rhyming story?
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. And by creating a relationship grounded in caring dialogue, you will naturally foster your child’s wondrous innate drive to explore, understand, and communicate with her world.