Picture this: a small, sunny room full of wriggling little babies, more than a dozen of them. A few are perched on laps, bouncing and babbling. Some are toddling, others are dancing, and there’s a daddy patiently rocking his wailing newborn.
And there she is at the center of it all, in one hand a colorful picture book opened to a page covered with romping animals, in the other hand a furry Brown Bear puppet.
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” she asks. Her face is animated and her voice undulates excitedly as she looks around the room, making eye contact with as many big and little eyes as she can. “I seeee . . .” She turns the page with a flourish, her face filled with anticipation as parents lean forward and some kids pause perfectly still. “A Yellow Duck looking at me!”
A Yellow Duck puppet seamlessly appears, and she makes it do a funny dance while she deftly moves the book, held by Brown Bear, so that everyone in the room can see the pictures. A few parents cheer, some of the babies smile and squeal, one starts to cry because the Yellow Duck startled her, and a little guy bursts out in giggles and rolls on the floor in delight.
What is this joyful, whimsical, topsy-turvy place where babies and families can celebrate the enchantment of language in all its rhyming, rhythmic, and rollicking glory? It’s the local library, of course! And the magician at the center of all the fun is the magnificent, multitasking, multitalented children’s librarian.
There’s been a lot of excitement among children’s literacy enthusiasts this year since the most influential group of children’s doctors in the country, the American Academy of Pediatrics, made a public recommendation of great importance in June 2014. It’s no surprise that the pediatricians’ group gives guidance on such things as what to feed babies and how much sleep they need. The big news is that the AAP came out publicly to strongly recommend that parents read to their babies — right from the very beginning.
So reading to babies and children is right up there with feeding them fruits and veggies! This was a groundbreaking announcement for many parents and some literacy advocates, but no surprise to children’s librarians — they invented baby storytime! These experts have known for eons about the benefits of reading aloud to children, and have been working tirelessly to inspire families to begin their own literacy-centered routine right from babyhood.
Now two new studies have added even more support to this idea. The first, published in August in the AAP’s journal Pediatrics, looked closely at the brains of young children who were read to and those who were not. The children who had been exposed to regular storytime showed significantly greater brain development, which directly correlated with the amount of time each child was read to. Then, the August issue of Psychological Science reported a study showing that children who are read to regularly develop greater vocabulary and flexibility with language than those who are only spoken to. Apparently the exposure to unfamiliar words in the context of a story especially helps develops the language center in the child’s brain.
We applaud the AAP’s recommendation that families read to their babies as soon as they’re born, and we’d like to go one step further. An abundance of research over the last several years has found that babies already begin to develop the foundations of language during the last trimester of pregnancy — meaning that all the benefits of reading to a newborn can begin even before a baby is born.
Studies find that babies in the womb can hear and recognize speech patterns and rhythms, which develops the language center in the brain and begins to teach the modes and melodies of their primary language. What’s more, babies can actually remember a rhythmic poem or story they heard during the last trimester for up to four weeks after birth, and they show a clear preference for the rhythm and melody of a song or poem heard regularly from the womb.
They also show a preference for their mother’s voice over a stranger’s, and perhaps the most exciting finding for new parents is that newborns are measurably calmed by a familiar, rhythmic story read repeatedly before birth. In addition, taking time out for relaxing, reading, and snuggling with the baby before birth (just as after) produces oxytocin, the “feel-good hormone” that nature created to connect parents with their young, and this also has a positive effect on fetal growth and development.
There are so many reasons to begin bonding with and nurturing babies through reading even during pregnancy, and there’s great practical value as well: Reading aloud is a skill to be learned and practiced (just ask a librarian!).
While starting a storytime routine from birth is a lovely idea, the reality is that most parents have not actually read a book aloud in a very long time, if ever. With the best intentions they pick up that beautiful picture book given to them at the baby shower, but they might find that the unfamiliar text doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as expected, and reading aloud to their little one doesn’t come so naturally after all.
At the same time, new mothers and fathers may be overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking care of this new little being in their charge. They want to do everything right and will follow the AAP’s suggestions to the best of their ability, so now “read to baby” will probably be on many to-do lists. But as they juggle feeding times, a sleep schedule, diaper changing, and a multitude of other new jobs, “read to baby” might understandably be sacrificed.
If expectant parents begin storytime before the baby is born, it gives them lots of time to practice and get comfortable with reading aloud, and to choose books they love and are excited to share with that unseen listener. Because the research shows that babies in utero love verse that is repeated, parents can practice to their heart’s content, knowing their baby will only become more familiar with and responsive to the language of the poem or story.
By beginning a storytime routine before baby is born, moms and dads will grow to love this sacred time of day. Plus, experts say reading a story at bedtime helps babies both before and after birth wind down and get ready for sleep. So expectant parents can even use in utero storytime to condition their baby to get sleepy at bedtime!
Best of all, when their baby is born and hears the familiar story for the first time outside the womb, he really will listen. It might be the one thing that stops him from fussing! The parents will see for themselves that the time they spent reading before birth has borne the most magical fruit, and they’ll be all the more eager to continue that routine, for years to come.
And when it comes time to introduce baby to story hour at the local library, and that wonder-working children’s librarian realizes that these parents have already shared with their child the joy of getting lost in story, she’ll be thrilled to know she hasn’t cornered the market on read-aloud fun.
Who knows? Prenatal story hour might be a new addition to her calendar!
(Licensing for photos purchased by guest blogger from 123rf.com)
Photo credit: Betsy Boyle
Susan Lupone Stonis and Jacqueline Boyle are the co-author/illustrators of Can’t Wait to Show You: A Celebration for Mothers-to-Be, the first book specially designed to read to babies before and after birth, and winner of the Mom’s Choice Awards Gold Award. For lots more information and tips on reading aloud to babies in utero, please visit The Reading Womb blog.
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