It’s only natural

Mother and NewbornA 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?

Bella and Baby

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.

PregReadBegin 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.

Read BabyOf 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.

Bella and Baby 2So 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 . . .

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

Reading roundup

Reading MumDear readers, we can’t help noticing the search terms that bring so many of you to The Reading Womb. The question most asked by far is some variation of, “What should I read to my baby in the womb?” We’re thrilled to see that reading to babies prenatally has become a mainstream practice among expectant parents! And clearly, families are thirsting for more information.

So in response to your requests, here’s another roundup of  books and authors perfectly suited to reading to your baby before birth.

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. We know that 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.

Martin-CarleAuthor Bill Martin, Jr. and iconic illustrator Eric Carle have collaborated to create a much-loved collection of rhyming books whose simple text and engaging illustrations will capture the attention of babies and adults alike. There are three titles with a similar catchy chorus repeated throughout each book, just perfect for in utero reading: Polar Bear Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, and Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?

Polar Bear, Polar Bear, what do you hear?

I hear a lion roaring in my ear!

Lion, Lion what do you hear?

I hear a hippopotamus snorting in my ear!

ChickaAnother favorite, also written by Bill Martin, Jr., is a rollicking and playful interpretation of the childhood chant, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.

A told B and B told C,

“I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree!” . . .

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom!

Will there be enough room?

Prolific author and illustrator Sandra Boynton has created many enjoyable rhyming books for young children. Her whimsical text and lovable characters create a fun reading experience for baby and grownups alike. From the popular Moo, Baa, La La La: “A cow says Moo. A sheep says Baa. Three singing pigs say La La La!”

BoyntonBoynton’s Tickle Time is bound to become a family favorite. Listen: “If you’re feeling blue and you don’t know what to do, there’s nothing like a tickle time to make you feel like new.”

Mem Fox has a way with words, and she’s created many books that should be at the center of your in utero reading experience. Her Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, The Magic Hat, and A Giraffe in the Bath are favorites that all have the rhyme, rhythm, and repetition that your baby will remember and grow to love.

A giraffe in the bath—does that make you laugh? Or a frog in the flour? Or a sheep in the shower? An owl with the flu? Or a roo on the loo? A crocodile with style—does that make you smile?

Of course, anything by Dr. Seuss will do the trick. You may have read these favorites as a child: One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Hop on Pop, Green Eggs and Ham . . . and the list goes on.

KublerAnnie Kubler specializes in bringing popular rhymes to life with her charming and colorful illustrations. Everyone knows the words to If You’re Happy and You Know It, I’m a Little Teapot and Pat-a-Cake, but with her sweet babies and bright palette  Ms. Kubler has given the traditional children’s rhymes new life.

Family BumpSo, you’ve got some books and now you’re ready to get started! Watch for our next post, which will be full of practical tips about how to make your prenatal reading experience effective and powerful.

And if you are a parent who has benefited from the beautiful and bonding experience of reading to your baby before birth, we’d love to hear your story!  Please send your stories, photos or videos and we’ll include them on on our blog to inspire other expectant parents to read to their child in the womb! From everything we’ve heard, these little ones turn out to be pretty special—early talkers who want to read everything they can get their hands on. But we’re not surprised. We at the Reading Womb have long known that it’s never too early to read to your baby!

Conclusive evidence!

“Even in late gestation, babies are doing what they’ll be doing throughout infancy and childhood—learning about language.”

—Dr. Christine Moon, Pacific Lutheran University

17160876_sListen up, expectant parents! You must have heard the news about the most recent research on prenatal learning—it’s been widely reported over the last couple of weeks, by The New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS, the BBC, and NPR, to name a few. And it provides the most definitive evidence yet that babies hear, remember and learn from inside the womb!

Christine Moon, the lead author of the study, is a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. She says that the study results show that babies can learn prenatally and that they are attuned to particular speech sounds of a mother’s language. It would be hard to argue with her powerful evidence.

Newborn babies can’t talk, but they can suck, and scientists used a pacifier connected to a computer to determine whether or not babies recognized sounds they had been exposed to. When a newborn hears or experiences something familiar, the sucking response slows down, and conversely, it increases for unfamiliar stimuli. Through this method, Dr. Moon discovered that brand-new babies recognized specific vowel sounds as they were spoken by their mothers.

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And since it’s highly unlikely that these vowel sounds were learned in the short time after birth, the obvious conclusion was that “babies’ understanding of the difference between native and nonnative sounds could be attributed only to prenatal learning.”

Says Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study, “The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain.The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them.” So when you speak to your child in the womb, your baby is latching onto your words and your voice, and especially to those vowel sounds. The ooo’s , eee’s, and ahh’s are what your baby hears and remembers best.

If you’ve been following the Reading Womb, then you’re familiar with the incredible wealth of research showing what babies in the womb are capable of. It all started with that famous 1984 DeCasper study that demonstrated a newborn’s ability to remember a story (The Cat in the Hat) that was read prenatally. Many other studies have since shown that babies recognize music, nursery rhymes, and their native language due to hearing them from inside the womb.

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Many research studies around the globe have shown that newborns are born ready to learn and begin to discriminate between language sounds within the first months of life. We at the Reading Womb have long inferred from the research that babies are learning language from inside the womb, but this most recent study gives concrete evidence that it is absolutely true.

“This is the first study that shows fetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother’s language,” said Dr. Moon. “This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth.”

Well, doesn’t the message come through loud and clear? Reading to your baby in your belly is not a crazy idea—as a matter of fact, it’s quite a brilliant idea! And may we go a step further to suggest that you choose a rhyming, rhythmic story to read to your little one? Many of the studies (see our Research links in the sidebar) strongly indicate that babies remember patterns, rhythms, and beats heard from inside the womb, and this most recent research shows that babies hear and remember specific vowel sounds. You can choose books for your baby that have both rhyming and repetitive vowel sounds.

Chicka

Listen to the wonderful beat and strong repeated vowels sounds in this excerpt from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault:

A told B and B told C,

“I’ll meet you at the top of the

coconut tree.”

“Whee,” said D to E, F, G,

“I’ll beat you to the top of the coconut tree.”

Chicka chicka boom boom

Will there be enough room?

Hush

And this lovely snippet from Caldecott Medal winner Hush, by Mingfong Ho:

White duck, white duck,

don’t come beeping.

Can’t you see that Baby’s sleeping?

White duck, white duck,

don’t you cry.

My baby’s sleeping right nearby.

If you’re a new visitor to the Reading Womb, please check out our earlier posts for in-depth discussion of the research supporting prenatal reading, as well as recommendations for books and poems to read to your baby-to-be. And please leave a comment about your own experiences!

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!

Beyond the Traditional Family, Part 1

Although the majority of babies are still raised in a traditional mother/father household, we know there are many strong families that represent unique variations on the parenting theme. Lots of homes include extended family members who are heavily involved in raising the child. A single parent might be helped out by a best friend or roommate. More and more kids are raised by two mommies or two daddies, perhaps with a surrogate mother. And siblings can contribute substantially to the care of baby brothers and sisters.

With the agreement of the expectant mother, anyone who intends to take a large part in caring for the coming baby can also begin reading to it before it’s born. He or she can start the bonding process early and, after the birth, experience the newborn’s response to the familiar voice and story. This will help soothe both baby and grownup when they spend time together without the birth mother, whose voice would naturally be best known to the baby.

Probably the most notable co-caregivers today are grandparents, and especially grandmothers. It’s cool to be a grandma now! When Goldie Hawn first became a grandmother, she balked at the title because “It’s a word that has so many connotations of old age and decrepitude.” Her son gave her the nickname Glam-ma and it stuck—and became a fashionable term. The phenomenon of grandbaby showers is becoming widespread, as a way of honoring the initiation into grandparenthood and, more practically, to help prospective grandparents prepare their homes for the visiting baby and even for childcare.

Substantial childcare on the part of grandparents has become a fact of life under the present economic conditions that force so many parents to work fulltime. A University of Toronto study found that close to 7% of all American grandparents provide extensive caregiving—of 30 or more hours a week—while not being the primary caregivers. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 10 children in the U.S. now lives with a grandparent, and in 41% of these households the grandparent is the primary caregiver.

So, go ahead, Nana and Pop-pop! Start snuggling up with your daughter(/in-law) and reading a rhythmic story, maybe something comical or that gives you the warm-fuzzies. Billy Crystal wrote his well-known I Already Know I Love You, addressed to his coming grandchild, when his daughter was expecting. This poem of loving anticipation might appeal to any prospective grandfather. Anne Bowen’s I Loved You Before You Were Born is told from the grandmother’s perspective, as is Karen Hill’s Grandmother’s Book of Promises. Or choose your favorite poetry—anything rhythmic, with or without rhyme, that adds to your joy in this experience.

Stay tuned for part 2, where we discuss Savvy Aunties of all kinds, baby’s big brother or sister, and other caregivers who go beyond the traditional family.