Joyful noise!

4940351_sJust when we thought things couldn’t get any more amazing in the realm of prenatal language development, our socks have been knocked off by a brand spankin’ new study. The New York Times and The Washington Post have just reported on research that was recently done at the University of Helsinki that demonstrated that babies in the womb remembered and were soothed by lullabies that were heard in the womb during the last trimester.

The study suggests that the repetitious and rhythmic quality of the music creates pathways in the brain that remain with a baby for weeks after birth. The song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was played to the baby prenatally and then again after birth. Newborns were calmed from crying by hearing the familiar song, and most interestingly, were not fooled if even a few notes of the song were changed. As a matter of fact, they would continue to cry until they heard the original melody!

16118741_sNot to toot our own horn (TOOT!), but we at The Reading Womb have been saying this for years! Preborn babies latch on to rhythm and repetition of the language that they hear from inside the womb, and are calmed and soothed when it is repeated after birth. Co-author of the study Dr. Eino Partanen “suggested that expectant mothers could sing a certain song to their unborn child and that later on, if the baby is crying or stressed, singing the same melody could serve as a soothing reminder of their time in the womb.” Amazing!

Please check out the Research section in our sidebar for links to other studies that show the magic of a song or story — it doesn’t matter which, as long as what your baby hears is repetitive, rhyming, and rhythmic, and that she is exposed to the words regularly during the last trimester.

penny_simkinThere is someone else whose horn we have to toot! Toot-toot to Penny Simkin, a long-respected and beloved parenting and pregnancy expert who has been recommending for decades now that expectant parents sing to their babies. Penny contributed this wonderful and comprehensive article on the subject to the Science & Sensibility blog of Lamaze International. If you want to see for your own eyes the amazing benefits of singing to your baby before and after birth, you must check out her recent YouTube video. You will see two expectant family members, a father and a big sister, who sing to the baby during the last trimester. Once the baby is born . . . well, you really must see this phenomenon for yourself, with hanky at the ready. Incredible!

We’re guessing that the next groundbreaking studies will focus on how a baby in the last trimester grows to love and be calmed by the voices of not only his mother, but his father, siblings, grandparents, and other close family members, too. So, expectant families, the research says it loud and clear: It’s never too early to read — or sing! — to your baby!

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!

Let’s get started!

12583532_sSo, you’re convinced: reading to your soon-to-be-born baby is a very good idea. But you’re wondering, how should I begin? Well, you’ve come to the right place—here are some answers to the questions we hear most.

When do I start? You can begin reading to your child in the womb at any time during your pregnancy, but current research shows that the baby’s hearing and memory are more developed in the last trimester, and that they actually begin learning language during these months. Check out this link to learn more.

How do I begin? First establish a time of day that will be devoted to sharing this special time—20 minutes or so—with your baby. Remember, you’re making a commitment to read to your child now and for many years in the future, so choose a time of day that will feel right over the long term. Before you know it, this special reading time will become ingrained in your family’s daily routine, and will be cherished and anticipated by both you and your baby.

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Where should I read? Find a quiet and comfortable spot in your home where you can snuggle up with a book, and maybe a cup of tea. Pick a location where you won’t be interrupted—this will become a sacred place for you and your baby, and this time should be as calming and soothing for you as it will be for your child. Lean back comfortably and take a few slow, deep breaths before beginning to read; you’ll find yourself feeling more calm as your heartbeat and breathing slow down. This relaxation and the beneficial hormones it produces will immediately pass to your baby and you’ll both feel connected and peaceful.

What should I read? The evidence shows that anything rhythmic, repetitive, and rhyming is best—babies will remember such sounds if they’re read regularly and they will actually respond positively to the story after they’re born. Check out this amazing TED talk by Annie Murphy Paul for more on that.

You don’t need to speak more loudly than usual; the baby has prime seating and the acoustics are excellent! Check out these previous posts for some fun story suggestions: Reading Roundup and The Gift of Reading to Your Baby in Utero.

ReadtoBabyI had my baby—now what? Once you’ve established your cozy regular reading time during pregnancy, it will be a breeze to continue after your baby is born. Hold your baby close and read the stories you both know so well. You will be amazed to see that your baby is instantly calmed and settled as you read a familiar story, and you’ll see with your own eyes what all the research has been telling us: that reading to your baby in the womb has a powerful effect on a child’s well-being and development. Daddy, siblings, even grandparents can take part in reading time before and after birth. What a good feeling it will be to have established this loving family routine that will continue for years to come!

Not only is reading to your baby before and after it’s born a great idea for family bonding and early literacy development, but there’s a wealth of research that demonstrates the benefits. Please check out this post  for more information: Why Should I Read to My Baby Before Birth?

And be sure to listen to the Reading Womb Podcast for even more in-depth information.

If you have more questions about in utero reading, or would like to share about your own experiences, we can be can be reached by email at preliteracy.partners@gmail.com. We look forward to hearing from you soon, and remember . . .

Never

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!

Libraries, our early-literacy champions! (Part 2)

The message is spreading: literacy can and should be fostered not only in young children but in the very youngest babies, too. In our last post we talked about Born to Read, the American Library Association’s initiative for encouraging early literacy. The ALA provides resources to libraries to promote reading to newborns, and library staff distribute books and information to new and expectant parents to support the program’s worthy aims:

  • encourage development of and increase emergent literacy skills and vocabulary
  • provide a language-enriched environment to all children and their families
  • create and establish routines and habits for young children and their parents
  • create and establish a special time for parents to interact and concentrate on their baby, providing an enjoyable time to bond
  • impact baby’s language development through singing, speaking and reading
  • present an enjoyable and positive experience so that babies will develop a love of reading and libraries and will eventually share that with others as they grow up and become adults

Abundant research during the past decade has made it clear that babies in the last trimester are an active audience. They can discern, remember, and learn what they hear from inside the womb. Therefore, there is strong evidence that the ALA’s listed benefits of reading to babies would be enhanced if reading began before birth! We’re sure it’s only a matter of time before prenatal reading is included as part of the ALA’s Born to Read intiative.

Please check out this link to the ALA’s website for more information.

Meanwhile, the  U.S. Department of Education’s initiative Race to the Top also has early literacy as an integral part of its vision. Massachusetts (our home state) was one of nine states to be awarded $50 million over four years to “provide services for children from birth to age five which support early literacy and family literacy.” The state plan, From Birth to School Readiness: Massachusetts Early Learning Plan, 2012–2015, is designed to support work that “builds strong foundations for our youngest citizens.” One component of the plan is centered around increasing the quality of oral language of preschool children in order “close the developmental gaps for the youngest and neediest children in the state.”

In our August 2011 post Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me, we discussed the groundbreaking Hart and Risley study, which found that the amount of rich, responsive language interactions between parents and children before age three was a clear indicator of the children’s success in school, both socially and academically. We hope that the state of Massachusetts, as well as other states across the county, are paying attention to all the recent studies showing that babies learn language in the womb.

It couldn’t be more concrete: Learning doesn’t begin at birth; it begins before birth. We certainly expect that our educational leaders will reflect the undeniable impact of prenatal language exposure as they create their nationwide literacy initiatives to improve the lives of our children and families.

For now, go ahead, expectant mommies, daddies, grandparents, babysitters! Read to that baby bump! Although you can’t yet see your little one, she is raptly listening to and learning from your words, words that are music to her ears and, as the research shows, that lay the foundation for her social and cognitive development. And when our  educational leaders announce that they are including prenatal reading in their recommendations, you can proudly say “I knew that,” as you continue to enjoy all the incredible research-supported benefits of reading to your  baby before and after birth.

Libraries, our early-literacy champions! (Part 1)

Kudos to the American Library Association for their ambitious initiative, Born to Read: It’s Never Too Early to Start! This project is “aimed at providing early literacy resources to library staff as they help expectant and new parents to become aware that reading to a baby from birth is critical to every baby’s growth and well-being.” As you’ve probably gathered, as far as reading goes, we at The Reading Womb enthusiastically agree that “It’s never too early to start!”

It’s thrilling to see how many public libraries across the country are on board with the Born to Read initiative. Some host baby showers for expectant parents to give books and information to those who want to begin reading right away, and others distribute books to new parents in local hospitals so that they can start reading as soon as their babies are born.

Kate Pierce, C.N.M., gives Read to Your Bunny to expectant parents Kate and Rob White

An impressive assembly of libraries, schools, businesses and community members in Ithaca, New York,  has been collaborating for over 15 years to promote reading through the Family Reading Partnership. This exceptional coalition of reading advocates “have joined forces to create a culture of literacy by promoting family reading practices throughout our community.” Among their many educational endeavors, the Family Reading Partnership encourages expectant parents to read to their babies in the womb, and educates them about how early experiences with books build a strong foundation for lifelong learning. Here are some of the FRP’s hopes and dreams for families:

  • Reach Families Early: The earlier a family integrates books and reading into everyday life at home, the greater the impact books will have on their children.
  • Reach Families at Home: We want all children to grow in literacy-rich environments, where books are accessible and enjoyed. When adults and children discover the joy of books together in the home, a love of reading becomes a shared value.
  • Encourage Daily Routines and Family Traditions Around Books: In a culture of literacy books are so interwoven into the fabric of family life that they become an expected and treasured part of everyday life.

The whirlwind of energy and imagination behind the partnership is Executive Director Brigid Hubberman. We were honored to exchange a few emails with Ms. Hubberman, in which we enthused about the merits of in utero reading and Brigid shared some of the exciting programs the FRP facilitates to encourage families to embrace literacy-centered routines. The Family Reading Partnership has sponsored an incredible mission to get the literacy ball rolling as soon as possible by giving expectant parents inspiring reading materials at their initial prenatal doctor’s visit. Couples receive a copy of the beautiful rhyming and rhythmic book by Rosemary Wells, Read to Your Bunny, along with the adult book Reading Magic by literacy expert Mem Fox, which explains the importance of providing a literacy-rich environment for children. Now, how awesome is that?

The FRP also distributes a playful bookmark, featuring this wonderful illustration from Reading Magic, that humorously depicts that it really, truly is never too early to read to your baby, as well five excellent reasons (see below) to start even before he or she is born.

Brigid shared a lovely story with us about a father who experienced firsthand the advantages of prenatal reading:

We do have a wonderful and concrete “evidence of impact” story from a father who read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to baby over and over in the months before birth. After a long and difficult labor, when baby was finally born by C-section, the new dad found himself exhausted, alone and panicked in the recovery room with a shrieking new baby. Looking down he felt the words well up, and found himself say to the baby, “In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.” Immediately, the baby quieted down and looked into her father’s eyes as he told the story of the caterpillar that turned into a butterfly. There is no doubt that this baby was soothed by the familiarity and comfort of her father’s voice reading (by heart) a story that was already her own!

We get goosebumps every time we receive another confirmation of the magical effects of reading to babies in utero! And we are so grateful for the enormous contribution the Family Reading Partnership is making to the cause of family literacy (find out more about it here). In Part 2 we’ll talk a little more about the ALA’s Born to Read program, as well as the national educational initiative Race to the Top. For now, we’ll leave you with the FRP’s perfect expression of why It’s Never Too Early to Read to Your Baby!

When learning begins

A while back we mentioned the TED Talk, “What We Learn Before We’re Born,” given by Annie Murphy Paul in July 2011 and posted on TED.com in November. Today we want to focus in on this excellent presentation and highlight the bits that really excite us as advocates of reading to babies in utero.

Annie Murphy Paul and Son Gus

Ms. Paul is a science writer for The New York Times and TIME Magazine, and she’s written a book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. In her talk she explains the emerging scientific field called fetal origins, which studies the ways that health and well-being are affected by one’s experience in the womb.

Many elements of a pregnant mother’s environment, from the foods she eats to the stressful situations she encounters, can have lasting effects on her growing baby’s future adaptation to its world. But, says Ms. Paul, “one of the most fascinating insights I took from this work is that we’re all learning about the world even before we enter it.”

And that includes, of course, learning language! She discusses some of the research findings that we’ve talked about here, such as this one from way back in 1985, in which researchers had 16 pregnant mothers read Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat to their bellies twice a day for the last 6 weeks of pregnancy. When the babies were born, they showed by sucking response that they much preferred to hear their mothers read the familiar Dr. Seuss story than one they hadn’t heard from the womb.

Ms. Paul also mentioned this favorite study of ours that found that newborns cry in the accent of their mother’s language. Her comment on the implications of this is fascinating:

Now, why would this kind of fetal learning be useful? It may have evolved to aid the baby’s survival. From the moment of birth, the baby responds most to the voice of the person who is most likely to care for it—its mother. It even makes its cries sound like the mother’s language, which may further endear the baby to the mother, and which may give the baby a head start in the critical task of learning how to understand and speak its native language.

We love the attention that Annie Murphy Paul is bringing to the subject of fetal origins and learning. Even though there’s a wealth of scientific evidence (just check out our Research links to the right!) to show that babies begin absorbing elements of language in utero, there’s nothing like a lively, engaging speaker—who’s a mother herself—bringing science home to our everyday lives. Ms. Paul explains all the research in a cozy, comfortable manner that is easily accessible to us nonscientific types, and her message couldn’t be any clearer: Babies in the womb are paying attention! Your expected child is a captive audience who is poised, listening and ready to learn, and it is you, the expectant parent, who is your child’s very first teacher. Any teacher worth her salt knows the importance of reading aloud to children and its powerful impact on language and literacy development.

Annie Murphy Paul concludes her talk, “Learning is one of life’s most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined.” So very true, Annie, and we’re sure you’ll agree . . . it’s never too early to read to your baby!

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!

The gift of reading in utero

’Tis the season for giving, and what better gift is there for expectant families than a book that’s perfect for reading to a baby in the womb? We’ve received requests for suggestions of titles from our followers, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to share some of the best books for reading to babies in utero.

If you’ve been following our blog and podcast, 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. Preborn babies 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 you and your baby will enjoy before and after she’s born.

Ashley, an expectant mother from California, shared with us that she is reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle to her little “bundle of joy.” Ashley has chosen an excellent example of the type of story that is perfect for reading to your baby before and after birth. The poetic meter and repetitious verse will create those neural pathways in your 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 appropriate titles, including Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? and Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See? These books all have colorful illustrations that will engage babies and adults alike.

Another favorite Bill Martin Jr. title is a whimsical rhyming alphabet book called Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. In a catchy beat it describes the antics of the personified letters of the alphabet—great fun to read aloud.

Mem Fox is a prolific writer of children’s books, and many of them are perfect for reading to your expected child. The adorable illustrations and simple verse in her Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes is just perfect for introducing your child to the joys of reading. Other appropriate titles by Mem Fox include The Magic Hat and Time for Bed.

A traditional favorite is the series of books written by Ludwig Bemelmans about Madeline, the little French girl. These stories told in simple verse may be a nostalgic trip down memory lane for the adult reader.

Dr. Seuss has dozens of rhyming books, and some of our favorites are One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Horton Hears a Who, and Green Eggs and Ham.

Sandra Boynton is the author and illustrator of many fun and melodic board books, including Barnyard Dance and Pajama Time. These books, with their lively illustrations and all-around silliness, are bound to become cherished additions to your child’s story repertoire.

You’ve already heard us gush about the wonderful poems of Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Everything On It) and Jack Prelutsky (Be Glad Your Nose Is on Your Face, A Pizza the Size of the Sun, and Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young), but there are many other wonderful options when it comes to prenatal reading:

Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Raschka

Sheep in a Jeep and Sheep in a Shop by Nancy Shaw

Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, and Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies

Remember that it’s important that you enjoy reading the books as much as your baby enjoys hearing them. Keep in mind that these are the stories that your baby 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.

And one day soon, when your child is all cozied up in your lap, sharing this sacred and special reading time, she will say those words that will be music to your ears, “Can you read that again, Mommy?” or “Just one more time, Daddy!” Now, what could be better than that?