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!

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?