Words: Share them generously with your baby!

StudentsListen 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.

Meaningful DifferencesSounds 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.

Talking to BabyTwo 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.

Reading to BabyA 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.”

Daddy and BellyWhat 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?

Daddy and Baby

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.


Language learning in the womb . . . and stress during pregnancy

We were excited to read this September 27 article by Dr. Gail Gross in the Huffington Post. The opening line could have come straight from the archives of The Reading Womb . . .

Did you know that babies learn in the womb, and also that stress can affect their development?

InteractingThe article goes on to touch upon several studies that have demonstrated that babies hear, remember, and even begin to understand speech sounds heard in utero. “This,” says Dr. Gross, “is the foundation for language.” She includes a charming description of all the ways babies in the womb have been found to react to noise, such as “kicking, moving and even dancing around,” that would fascinate any expectant parent.

Aren’t you eager to read to your baby-to-be, knowing the kind of interaction you’re actually having with her?

We love finding out about all the new research being carried out in recent years to discover just what, when, and how babies begin to learn in the womb. And we were especially gratified to see that Dr. Gross linked these findings with those of a recent study showing the detrimental effects that a pregnant mother’s stress can have on her baby in utero.

RelaxingIf you haven’t already, please check out our August 2011 post, The Pregnant Pause, in which we talk about how important it is to relax and enjoy the moment during your pregnancy. We mentioned a German study that found that stress hormones produced in the mother are passed on to her baby. Dr. Gross in the Huffington Post refers to a more recent British study that discussed how such hormones can impair fetal cognitive development. But on the positive side, the hormones and endorphins produced by a relaxed and peaceful mother have a remarkably soothing effect on her baby.

What better way to take some regular time to slow things down and really be with your expected baby than to read to her? You’ll foster all kinds of health benefits for both of you—and at the same time, begin to familiarize her with your voice and the speech sounds of your native language(s). And it’s so easy! Please check out our pointers in the original post, and also our accompanying Pregnant Pause podcast episode, devoted entirely to guiding expectant mothers as they take time to slow down and cherish these moments when their baby is so close.

SingingWho knows? If you sing nursery rhymes
to your baby in the womb, you might
even make her dance!

Why should I read to my baby before birth?

OK, so you’re intrigued. Reading to your baby in the womb seems like a fun way to connect with your expected child. But did you know there’s a heap of research that supports the benefits of this practice? We thought we’d give you a quick breakdown of some of these findings, and point you toward further details.

You might also want to check out this fascinating TED.com talk by Annie Murphy Paul. It’s a synopsis of the latest discoveries in the exciting field of fetal origins.

The Benefits of Prenatal Reading

Your baby will become familiar with your unique voice.

Your baby will begin to learn language.

A familiar rhythmic story will soothe your newborn.

When you take time to relax and read, your baby relaxes, too.

Bonding with your baby prenatally benefits his future health and emotional well-being.

  • When a pregnant woman feels love for her expected child in the womb, she releases endorphins (“feel good” hormones), which trigger the same hormone release in the baby.
  • The baby becomes accustomed to these hormones and mimics the mother’s positive physiological response.
  • The result is a baby who has unhindered physical, cognitive, and neurological growth, and who is born with a general sense of safety and well-being.
  • See: Prenatal Bases of Development of Speech and Language and Prenatal Stimulation.

The more words your baby hears, the better adjusted and more successful she will be in life.

Reading to your child before and after birth strengthens family and social bonds.

  • Establishing a routine around reading creates a sacred, centered, regular time devoted to you and your child.
  • This helps expectant parents and siblings develop a relationship with the baby before birth, easing the transition into parenthood and siblinghood.
  • It’s also an opportunity for others (grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends) to get involved in the prenatal bonding process.
  • In the bigger picture, family reading helps establish a culture in which literacy and language are a priority.
  • See, again: Prenatal Bases of Development of Speech and Language and Prenatal Stimulation.

The Research Confirms: It’s Never Too Early!

Pretty convincing, isn’t it? Now that you’ve seen all the research that supports in utero reading, it seems the real question is, why wouldn’t an expectant family read to their baby before birth? It’s so clearly the right thing to do!

Pathways to language

Lev Vygotsky is certainly not a household name, but if you are a parent who talks and talks to your baby, you have intuitively stumbled upon the groundbreaking research territory of this brilliant cognitive theorist. Vygotsky’s study of babies and young children in the early 20th century led him to conclude that the best learning takes place when the learner is guided and supported while taking on something new by what he called “a more knowledgeable other.” Parents help their children construct their knowledge of language by introducing them to new words, and by modeling intonation and expression of voice, facial expression, and hand gestures. So, just by talking and talking, you are drawing your child along in his language learning and cognitive development, supporting his acquisition of new words, and introducing him to all the benefits of communicating with other people.

Of course, this communication can start even before your child is born. We know that babies can hear voices from inside the womb, and it is the mother’s voice that is heard most often and most clearly. During the last trimester, your baby will become familiar with the unique intonation, melody, and cadence of your voice. Research shows that the baby in the womb responds to repetition and rhythm, so by reading a poetic story you will be introducing your child to the beauty of language, and to the exciting world of human interaction. Once your baby is born, you can enrich his auditory experience by pointing out illustrations and objects that will help him to assign a visual image to the words he has become familiar with.

Reading a rhythmic story to a baby in the womb is also important to his brain development, building the foundation for future speaking, reading, and thinking. Here’s the amazing science that explains why. Months before birth, a baby is tuned in to his mother’s voice and the rhythmic sound of her heartbeat. The developing nerves in the baby’s ears are connected to his brain, and the stimulation caused by sounds creates new neural pathways as the baby grows. When sounds are repetitive, rhythmic, and familiar, the pathways are defined and strengthened. So by reading a story or poem over and over again, you are creating and reinforcing pathways in your baby’s brain, and these will lay the groundwork for continued learning and development. The research shows definitively that babies who are read a rhythmic story regularly in the last trimester, remember and are soothed by the same story after birth!

If you’ve followed our blog and podcasts, you know we’ve spoken a lot about the detriments of babies’ interacting with an artificial device such as a tablet, phone or computer monitor (see Interactive? Parts 1 and 2). And recently,  more evidence supporting the importance of human vs. electronic interaction was provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reviewed hundreds of research studies done since 1999 on the effects of TV on babies and toddlers. Consider the following statement from the AAP:

“Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (e.g., child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged.”

There is no doubt: when it comes to your child’s language learning and cognitive development, nothing comes close to the rich and loving interactions your child shares with you and the other “more knowledgeable others” in his life. So keep talking and talking to your baby, before and after birth. You’ll be glad you did . . . and your new friend Lev Vygotsky would be so proud!