Prenatal learning, and bonding, for creatures great and small

60128948 - newborn baby boy and dadWe 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.

The Superb Fairy Wren chirps over her eggs to teach her chicks how to call for food after they've hatched. This gives them the edge over any nest-mates hatched from eggs deposited in the wren's nest by an interloping Bronze Cuckoo.
The Superb Fairy Wren chirps over her eggs to teach her chicks how to call for food after they’ve hatched. This gives them the edge over any nest-mates hatched from eggs deposited by an interloping Bronze Cuckoo.

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.”

RaptA 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 reassuAfterring 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.

20140225-BELLYBOOKS-FC-AMZN-1The 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.

Those magical 15 minutes

3739962_sYou’re a busy mom or dad, folding the laundry, thinking about what to make for dinner, trying to remember who you need to pick up, when and from where.

Suddenly you’re pulled from your thoughts by a sound like million tinkling bells, and you turn to see an iridescent green cloud billowing out of the laundry-detergent bottle. From inside the cloud emerges a genie! He looks at you kindly, seeing that you’re overwhelmed with household duties.

“O humble, toiling one!” says the genie. “You have been working so very hard! I’m going to give you a beautiful gift.”

A gift! From a genie! What could it be?

“I am going to give you 15 minutes! Fifteen whole minutes to do with whatever you desire.” The genie looks beneficent and proud.

Your face falls. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but really? Just 15 minutes? Accepting your faltering thanks, the genie vanishes back into the detergent bottle and you return to your thoughts.

Cupcake“What can I do with 15 minutes?” you wonder. “That’s not enough time to do anything! Well, I guess I could eat a whole salted-caramel cupcake, licking the frosting off first and savoring every bite . . . but I’d probably regret that. I could organize my sock and underwear drawer, but 15 minutes would barely make a dent. Hmmm.”

Well, what if we told you that with 15 minutes every day you could do something so powerful, so amazing, so truly magical that it would change your life and the life of your family forever?

© Copyright 2009 Corbis CorporationWe’re no genies, but we can tell you how to perform this magic: READ!

Study after study is showing conclusively the incredible benefits to parents and children of having a regular storytime routine. And just 15 minutes a day is all it takes.

“Read?” you say, “I’d rather have the cupcake!” OK, eating a cupcake for 15 minutes every day does sound like fun, but over time the only thing you’ll have to show for it will be on your hips. On the other hand, the rewards of a regular storytime routine can’t be measured, and over time they only grow. For a fun infographic on the many reasons to read aloud for 15 minutes (and unfortunate statistics about how many people don’t) please check out this wonderful poster from ReadAloud.org.

11683521_sAll right, so you’re ready to accept the genie’s gift and pass it on to your child, but where in your day should you carve out that 15 minutes? We suggest you begin your regular reading time at bedtime. There’s been a lot of hoopla lately about the benefits of bedtime stories, and with good reason. Reading for 15 minutes at bedtime not only exposes children to new vocabulary, develops reading and language skills, promotes brain growth, inspires empathy and encourages family bonding.

It also settles children down! We’d like to see a cupcake that can do that!

There is an amazing physiological and biological phenomenon that takes place when families sit down together and snuggle around a book. Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that gets us all riled up, are30926735_s measurably reduced in both parents and children when they cuddle up together. Meanwhile, Oxytocin, the bonding hormone that makes us melt over babies (and puppies, and all things adorable), increases, making this close family time one crazy-happy 15-minute love-fest!

Better yet, it can then become a soothing sleepy-fest. We’re going to give you our usual advice about when to begin practicing your sacred storytime: even before your baby is born. Experts say that if an expectant mother settles down at the same time each evening, her baby will become conditioned to settle down at that same time. Her heartbeat and breathing will slow down at this time every night, and so will her baby’s. Add a bedtime story to the mix and you have a recipe for a newborn who is sleepy, relaxed, and calmed by the words he knows so well.

And if expectant parents read to their baby for 15 minutes each night during the last trimester, they will see the magic firsthand once the baby is born. Way back in 1986, DeCasper and Spence showed that newborns responded more positively to a familiar rhyme read to them by their mother before birth than to an unfamiliar story, and others have been expanding on these findings ever since (see numerous studies in our Research sidebar list). Most recently (reported on Brain Decoder in July 2015), researchers at the University of Salzburg conducted similar experiments with mothers, as well as strangers, reading nursery rhymes to their babies in the third trimester. They found that the sound of an unfamiliar rhyme read by a stranger increased stress responses in the newborns, but that the familiar rhymes, spoken by either their mother or a stranger, had a calming effect.

Lots of new parents we know have found the same to be true (including those who regularly read our book to their babies in utero!), and there’s a growing body of anecdotal evidence out there for the Googling, but there’s nothing like personal experience. If you’re pregnant, especially in your third Rapttrimester, why not give it a try? Snuggle up with your partner tonight, and every night, for just 15 minutes with a bedtime story — especially one that’s rhythmic and rhyming — for your expected little one. Then keep that cozy ritual going when baby arrives, and watch its effects. Does he stop crying? Turn in the direction of your voice? Move his face and body in response to the story?

Well, that’s just the beginning. If you continue that 15 minutes of shared family reading time throughout your child’s life, you won’t need a genie after all. Just a little time, your voice, and a beloved story will create real and lasting magic for your child.

“Making Books Part of a Healthy Childhood”

17730593_sReach out for your favorite book. Reach out to a child and share a story together. Reach out to thousands of parents and give them free books to share with their children. Reach out to pediatricians and nurses across the country to educate them about the benefits to children of a regular storytime, and train them to teach this to their patients. Reach Out and Read!

Thanks to the nonprofit organization Reach Out and Read, receiving a picture book has become a regular part of many a child’s first well-baby visit. ROR “builds on the unique relationship between parents and medical providers to develop critical early reading skills in children, beginning in infancy.” It’s become mainstream practice for pediatricians to give books, right along with checkups, to young patients in over 5,000 Reach Out and Read program sites in the U.S. Participating doctors and nurses have provided almost 7 million books to children and families nationwide!

Reach Out and Read Washington State
Reach Out and Read Washington State

The best part is that not only are doctors and nurses providing the first book to families who may not otherwise have access to them, but they also dispense invaluable advice about the benefits of adopting a storytime routine right from the start. Reach Out and Read actively trains health care practitioners so that they can share with patients the most recent research and practices in reading aloud to children, as well as specific instructions to begin reading, talking and singing to babies as a regular part of raising a healthy child.

This wonderful organization has been reaching out for over 25 years! But most recently some major wind has been added to their sails by a strong public recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, our country’s largest and most respected group of children’s healthcare professionals. As we reported in our June 2014 post, the AAP said that parents should read to their babies as early as possible, that reading is an “essential” element of doctor visits, and that the benefits and implications for brain development, language acquisition, and family bonding, among others, are boundless. Pediatricians were urged to convey the message that reading regularly with children is paramount to their health and well-being.

None of this was surprising to the folks at ROR, but the AAP’s public recommendation inspired the creation of a dream team of literacy advocates that further empowered their mission. This powerhouse collaborative includes not only ROR and the AAP but also Too Small to Fail, a Clinton Foundation initiative, and Scholastic Books, one of the leaders in the children’s book industry. This collaborative has been educating the public about the importance for children of early exposure to language and literacy. Their work has already had a powerful impact on parents, educators, literacy advocates, medical professionals, and policymakers across the country and around the globe.

123rfReach Out and Read is an “evidence-based” organization that has piloted many of its own studies to lend to the body of research supporting this practice. One such study, published in the journal Pediatrics in May 2004, found a direct correlation between the number of ROR interactions a family was exposed to during well-child visits and the number of literacy-centered activities that took place in a child’s home. They found that even “a modest literacy intervention such as ROR can have a significant impact on a child’s home literacy environment,” and that children who had a great deal of ROR interaction reported that reading was one of their favorite activities.

Just last month, the organization began another very exciting pilot study with families of babies in the NICU at Boston City Medical Center to discover the impact that regular read-aloud time has on premature infants. Previous research has shown that “premature infants are exposed to less language in utero and after birth than term infants” and that “early language exposure is essential for normal language development.” In the study, ROR and professionals at the Boston City Medical center will provide literacy-centered education and interaction for the first five years of each child’s life and measure the child’s engagement with books and reading.

Graham's Foundation
Graham’s Foundation

This exciting pilot study builds on a recent discovery that babies in the NICU develop the language and auditory centers in their brains more quickly when their mothers read to them regularly. As found by previous studies we’ve reported here, babies learn language from their mother during the last trimester, but babies born too soon are deprived of this essential developmental period. However, it appears that these premature infants can catch up to their full-term counterparts when they hear stories, lullabies and songs for a few hours each day. By having parents read to premature babies, and then throughout their childhood, ROR hopes to add to their growing body of evidence about the positive effects that shared family storytime has on a child’s growth, development and well-being.

ReadingOf course, we at the Reading Womb always want to take it a step further! Many family practices that utilize ROR include obstetrics, and maybe someday they will also educate expectant parents about the importance of reading aloud to babies in the womb. In addition to all the benefits of in utero reading that we regularly touch upon here, the practice offers valuable support to new parents who want to incorporate storytime into their newborn’s daily schedule. All parents want to do what’s best for their baby, but when she finally arrives they may find themselves overwhelmed by all their new responsibilities. Three (or more) months of rehearsal would be a huge help!

AfterAfter a period of practicing reading to their baby in utero, during that time of relatively quiet anticipation before their lives change so dramatically, reading aloud to their newborn will be one of the few tasks that new parents will feel competent in. They can fall into a storytime routine that’s comfortingly familiar — even to baby, who’s been listening avidly from inside the womb — and it will become a cherished family ritual with lifelong benefits.

Thank you for the great work that you do, Reach Out and Read, and the precious gift you’re giving to families. Your reach extends far and wide!

In distinguished company

MCA_PH_400x400We couldn’t be more proud and pleased to announce that Can’t Wait to Show You: A Celebration for Mothers-to-Be, the first board book specially written and shaped for expectant parents to read to their baby in utero, has been distinguished by the Mom’s Choice Awards with a gold medal!

The Reading Womb and Belly Books wholeheartedly share Mom’s Choice’s mission of “helping families grow emotionally, spiritually and physically.” We’re proud to show off its seal of approval, which reflects “the best in family-friendly media, products and services.”

You’ve probably come across Mom’s Choice seals on your favorite kids’ books for years. In their words, “Products and services bearing the companys mother-and-child Honoring Excellence Seal of Approval have earned the MCA distinction for helping families grow emotionally, physically and spiritually; being morally sound and promoting good will; and inspirational and uplifting.”

Here’s how the organization describes this prestigious award:

It’s our joy to acknowledge those who are fueled only by their passion to make a better world as they write an inspiring book or design a helpful product. Around the world, parents, educators, retailers and the media trust us for our product reviews and evaluations.

Family ReadIt truly is our passion to make a better world by helping parents understand the enormous benefits — and the intrinsic rewards — of establishing a regular family reading time even before baby is born. Reading enhances not only brain and cognitive development but the parent-child bond. Reading brings with it not only worlds of adventure and learning, but vast possibilities of connection between human beings. And the amazing fact is that the baby in the third trimester of pregnancy is already able to join in this miraculous process.

Please stop by the Mom’s Choice Winners Shop and browse their extensive catalogue, and then have a look at their Mom’s Choice Matters blog. Of course, if you haven’t already gotten your copy of Can’t Wait to Show You, you can order it here!

NewbornThank you so much, Mom’s Choice Awards! We promise to make you proud.

Celebrate World Read Aloud Day with your baby-to-be!

LitWorldLogo

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):

LitWorld photo of WRAD 2014
LitWorld photo of WRAD 2014

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 e24441283_snhanced 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!

12070233_sStart 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.

9434429_s

Happy Reading! 

The perfect gift for your expectant loved one

15265325_sIs there a budding family on your holiday list? An excited pregnant someone and/or her partner? If someone you love is expecting a baby, there’s one present that gives the gifts of parental bonding, early learning, and joyful anticipation all rolled into one: a book to read to the baby in the womb.

If you’ve been following our blog, you know that the research says that the best stories for reading to your baby before birth are those that are rhythmic, rhyming, and repetitive. Babies in utero respond best to this type of auditory stimulation, and studies definitively prove that these kinds of stories are the best remembered and have the most soothing effect on newborns! The following list includes fun rhyming stories that parents and baby will enjoy before and after birth.

PandaThe Bear books, including and Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?  and Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle, are an excellent example of the type of story that’s perfect for reading to babies before and after birth. The poetic meter and repetitious verse will create the neural pathways in baby’s brain that will lay the foundation for future language learning. Author Bill Martin Jr. and illustrator Eric Carle have collaborated to create many other books with beautiful illustrations that will engage babies and adults alike.

ThingsOf course, Dr. Seuss has dozens of rhyming books, whose whimsical verses and illustrations have been charming us for generations now. Consider The Cat in the Hat or The Lorax.

And then there’s the beloved Sandra Boynton, the author and illustrator of many fun and melodic board books, including The Going to Bed Book and Moo Baa La La La. These books, with their lively illustrations and all-around silliness, are bound to become cherished additions to your child’s story repertoire.Going to Bed

With so many wonderful choices, it shouldn’t be hard to find a book that you enjoy reading aloud as much as your baby loves hearing. Keep in mind that these are the stories that your little one will become familiar with and will request again and again once she’s born. Right now, your baby is a captive audience, snuggled up all safe and warm in your “reading womb.” She waits to hear the beautiful sound of your voice and the beloved story, a magical combination that she’ll respond to and that research shows will help her cognitive and language development.

Featured Image -- 925Still can’t decide? Well, it just so happens there’s already a book that’s supported by research and expressly designed for reading to babies in utero and after they’re born. This critically acclaimed book was recently honored with a prestigious gold medal from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and has been inspiring expectant parents all over the globe to begin reading aloud to their babies before birth. Can’t Wait to Show you has become a beloved family favorite, a cherished storytime staple, and a beautiful little book that has sparked an incredible phenomenon of bonding with babies, prenatally and beyond, through language and literacy.

how-to-use-belly-booksNow, just for our dear readers, we’re offering a holiday special: $3 off the regular price on Amazon! Just enter promo code 6KIVA96K at checkout. And please, whether this copy is for yourself or for a loved one, we’d LOVE you to share your experience with your Belly Book. By email, on Facebook, or with an Amazon review, please give us your before-and-after pictures and stories. Thank you and Happy Holidays!

 

The Tale of an Insatiable Reader

Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

Warmest thanks to Gina of the wonderful blog Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers!

What made Gina such an avid book lover? Her mother read to her in the womb, of course! Read her story and her kind words about our book for reading to babies in the womb, Can’t Wait to Show You: A Celebration for Mothers-to-Be.

Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers: Can’t Wait to Show You by Jacqueline Boyle and Susan Lupone Stonis.