Everybody’s talkin’ at me

The findings couldn’t be clearer: The more words your baby is exposed to before age three, the better she will do in school. Children from vocabulary-rich households are definitely more successful both academically and socially than children from households where there is little talk.

Your baby is also tuned into language prenatally, and although she can’t attach meaning to the words, she can hear a variety of speech sounds, rhythms, and intonations from inside the womb. By talking to your unborn baby you will be helping her build a strong foundation for learning to speak, listen, and eventually read.

Consider the innovative research done by Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas in 1995. They followed 42 families and observed the language interactions between parents and their children, beginning when they were infants and continuing until they entered grade school. What they discovered was that in families where there was a great deal of talk, children performed well in school and, conversely, that in families where there was little talk, children were often struggling.

Other studies have since provided evidence that children who are exposed to rich vocabulary and language not only become better readers, but also excel socially. Those children who were not frequently exposed to spoken language presented a huge disadvantage in following directions, learning routines, and making friends. As a matter of fact, more than half of children with limited vocabularies at age three will have trouble learning to read later on.

There is no better place or 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 language development. Once she’s born, you can help your baby to make a visual connection to the words she has heard, but for now, the best thing you can do is just talk, talk, talk. Dr. Risley says that it doesn’t matter what you say; all talk is good talk. However, the research does say that reading something rhyming and rhythmic will help your baby to remember the words she hears, giving her a head start for building her own oral language.

When your child is born, you will support her acquisition of new words by pointing out illustrations in books, and adding facial expressions and gestures. Your baby is already on the way to becoming a reader! And even better, you have created a close relationship with your child by sharing and enjoying language together. The words you’ve introduced your baby to in utero are the seeds that will eventually grow into the give-and-take of real conversation.

By exposing your child to words from the very beginning, not only will you promote her success as a reader and a student, but you’ll give her the tools to communicate and so develop close and meaningful relationships . . . in the family, in school, and beyond.

Check out this great Reading Rockets webcast, From Babbling to Books, for more info on Hart & Risley.

The pregnant pause

Pregnancy is without a doubt a time of exciting anticipation. You and your loved ones are awaiting the arrival of a new little person, a person you’re so looking forward to meeting, someone you’ve been thinking about since the moment you first discovered you were expecting. As a culture, we tend to be very future oriented, and our perceptions of pregnancy are no exception.

Even the term “expecting” carries with it the implication that something has not yet happened, that we are waiting for something in the future. A multimillion-dollar industry is banking on the expectations of couples, who make use of the nine months of waiting to purchase nursery furniture, clothing, baby-name books, car seats, strollers, and everything else to prepare for the birth of their bundle of joy. This nesting process is a necessary and fun part of becoming parents, however by focusing so intensely on the future we can sometimes lose sight of the beauty and miraculousness of the present moment. Being “with child” is one of the most amazing and powerful of human experiences, and it’s important to savor these months as much as possible.

So many of us are stressed; we rush from one commitment to the next, multitasking as we eat, drive, and talk on the phone, trying to fit more and more into each day. And many expectant parents find that this is a time when even more is added to their plates—all the responsibilities of preparing for a baby can create a very long new to-do list.

As we all know, stress can have a strong impact on our physiological and psychological well-being, but some very recent studies suggest that it is also harmful to your unborn baby. Just a few weeks ago researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany announced findings from their study that suggest that when a pregnant woman was exposed to stress, her baby’s stress-hormone level also increased. It brings to mind some advice that our friend’s Italian grandmother gave her when she was pregnant with her first child. Nana advised her against going to a funeral, warning “the sadness isn’t good for the baby.” We laughed a little when our friend told us the story, but it turns out that this old wives’ tale has some scientific backing.

Her grandmother also said, “Have a glass of wine to help you relax. It’s good for the baby.” Now, while we certainly aren’t suggesting prenatal alcohol consumption, we do feel that there is some ancient wisdom to be found behind those words. Yes, stress may be bad for your baby, but on the positive side, relaxing is good for your baby—very, very good.

The popularity of prenatal yoga classes suggests that many pregnant women are aware that their well-being influences that of their babies. But if “go to Prenatal Yoga Class” is one more item to be added to the already chock-full pregnancy to-do list, it almost defeats the purpose, don’t you think?

Let’s put that list aside for a moment and think of some ways that you can truly relax. Yes, you are entitled as a pregnant woman to take time for yourself and your baby. It’s your right and even your duty! Pregnancy is one of those rare times in life where you can claim that you are doing something very important when you are just sitting still.

If you just sit in a comfortable place and breathe, you’re doing the most important thing of all, nurturing and caring for your baby. As you take each deep breath in, be aware that you’re also breathing for your baby. She’s taking in that life-giving oxygen and it’s nourishing her and helping her to grow. Now, be aware of the rhythm of your heart beating. Each beat brings invigorating blood to your baby, making her stronger every moment. And when you add your soothing voice to the mix, reading a calming rhythmic story, you have the formula for perfect relaxation for both mother and child.

The poetic rhythm that most closely mimics your heartbeat is iambic pentameter, or five sets of two syllables with the stress on each second syllable. Iambic pentameter was the form used most often by William Shakespeare in his sonnets, and you might like to try reading these love poems to the baby in your womb. Perhaps the most well known is Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall death brag thou wander in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

As you read you’ll find yourself feeling more calm as your heartbeat and breathing slow down. This relaxation will immediately pass to your baby; you’ll both feel connected, soothed, and peaceful, and you’ll know that you’re accomplishing the most valuable task of all. Cherish this time when your baby is so close to you, when you share everything, every place and every experience. Together you are an incredible symbiotic organism, working in perfect synchrony.

Yes, there is so much to look forward to as an expectant parent, and your baby will arrive soon enough. But you have every reason to push the pause button and stop that fast-forward movement toward your baby’s birth. All you need is ten or fifteen minutes a day set aside to savor those precious moments with your baby . . . breathing, reading, and just being together.

Ah, that new-book smell!

When Susan’s youngest son was around three years old, he made a pronouncement that is beautiful music to any teacher or mother’s ears. He had been sitting among a pile of his favorite titles, Polar Bear, Polar Bear by Eric Carle, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff, Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel, and the classic Pat the Bunny. Engulfed by books, with his favorite, an oversized Richard Scarry book called Busy, Busy Town open on his little lap, he announced “I love books!” Then, holding the book close up to his face, he added rapturously, “They smell so gooood.”

Although this same little fellow had been known to chew and lick books during his toddler years, we should not dismiss the message in his innocent wisdom. For children, reading is without a doubt a multisensory experience.

In this age of digital books and e-readers one can’t help but wonder, will the children of the future ever know that wonderful smell of a new book, the sturdy feel of a hardcover novel, or the soft sound of turning pages? Will the clichés “that was a real page turner” or “he always has his nose in a book” become obsolete? And what will become of the scratchy Daddy’s beard and soft bunny fur of Pat the Bunny? It’s just not the same, is it? The image of Susan’s young son smelling a Kindle comes to mind. Hmmm.

Think of the books you loved when you were a child. Do you remember reading One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish over and over, always finding something new in each whimsical Dr. Seuss illustration? And what about Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, with its full-spread illustrations, artistically placed text, and adorable ducklings marching across each page?

Every children’s picture book has its own unique design and reflects the thoughtfulness and inspiration of its author and illustrator. We are left wondering what the result will be when these well-loved titles are transferred to a digital format. Will the tangible, tactile, and multisensory qualities get lost in translation?

Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of many favorite children’s books, including The Polar Express, said “on a digital platform they all get ground into the same thing.” He is referring to the uniformity of text and illustration on an e-reader, which imposes a standard font and page size. The thought of each picture book illustration being the same shape and size, shrunk or stretched to fit a standard screen, is a little unsettling for any children’s book enthusiast, or for anyone who treasures the idiosyncrasies each author and illustrator bring to a story.

Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that all reading is good reading, and that there may be times when an e-reader is appropriate for children. When traveling, for example, it might not be practical for a family to bring a child’s collection of favorite books. An e-reader would make it convenient to continue an established reading routine even on vacation. The future of digital reading in classrooms is also an exciting possibility; volumes of books could be made available to children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to read them. And if you’re reading to your baby in the womb, she won’t know the difference! From inside the womb, an e-book sounds just like the traditional one. Uploading a fun selection of rhyming and rhythmic stories to share with your expected child would be quick and easy, and if this is what you need to get started, then go right ahead.

But once the baby is born, and she’s snuggled on your lap to hear that familiar story, your Kindle or Nook is just going to look like a rectangular hunk of plastic. Of course, the familiar story read by your unique voice will calm and sooth your baby, and that’s always a good thing. However, by sharing a real book with your newborn, a book with turning pages and bright illustrations, you will get both her auditory and her visual attention. You’ll also be setting her up with those prereading skills that we mentioned in earlier blogs, such as holding a book right-side-up and reading from left to right, to name a few.

Again, all reading is good reading. But if you want the very best reading experience for your baby in the womb or your newborn, there’s no substitute for a real, touchable, hearable, smellable book. It’s the total sensory experience that just might lead your child to joyfully exclaim someday, “I love books!”

There ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby!

If you did a search for “The Reading Womb” you may have stumbled upon this MAD TV video.

This animated caricature of infants in the womb being taught to “talk before they come out” is a hilarious exaggeration of a current trend to “educate” babies in the womb. A product called the Baby Plus Prenatal Education System, for instance, claims to produce children who “consistently demonstrate very strong fine and gross motor skills, early milestones, and long attention spans.”

The product literature also suggests that babies given the Baby Plus “curriculum” will be born smarter, will start speaking earlier, and will be intellectually superior to their baby peers. The system involves piping progressively more complicated beats into the womb through small speakers, all with the goal of educating the baby in utero. The wacky MAD TV video doesn’t seem too off base now, does it?

The genuine and pure experience of regularly reading to your baby before she’s born is completely unlike the undertaking of a “prenatal education system.” It’s not about achievement; it is about bonding and establishing a cozy lifetime routine for you and your little one. Your baby will hear the rhythm of your voice as you read a story, and this will become the foundation of a sacred family ritual once she’s born. It’s so perfectly simple: you and your baby sharing time together, communicating in a loving, gentle, and natural way.

The added benefits to the child’s cognitive growth and language development are a bonus to the wonderful feeling you will have as you share these cherished moments with your child, both before and after birth. And hey, if your baby does come out talking, she’s bound to say, “Thank you!”