In a recent post, I talked about the many benefits of reading out loud to your child (or a child you care for). Many parents and carers wonder though when they should start reading to their young charges. The short answer is as soon as possible after birth, if not before. Read on to learn enough to decide when you will start reading to the little one in your life.
Should you read to an unborn child?
Babies can hear even before they’re born. By around 24 weeks gestation, they can even start to recognise voices they hear regularly, such as their parents’ voices, because they can recognise the rhythm of the unique speech patterns of the people they hear talking. This ability to recognise rhythm also allows them to develop a fondness for particular songs, which can help you calm them once they’re born.
The quality of the sound they hear isn’t good enough for them to distinguish individual words, except perhaps towards the end of a pregnancy (one study did find that what a baby hears in the womb may support language development after birth but there isn’t a great deal of evidence to support this), so reading out loud to them isn’t likely to start educating them in the traditional sense. But the sounds a baby hears in the womb can improve his/her brain development and stimulate Bub’s auditory senses. Additionally, if the unborn child in your life hears you speaking regularly, this will help Bub form an auditory bond with you even before Bub is born.
You don’t have to read stories to enable Bub to realise these benefits, you merely have to talk out loud. Conversations with those around you are enough, particularly if you’re talkative. If you’re a quieter sort or you don’t have as many verbal interactions (a common example is women who, like me, don’t socialise much once starting maternity leave) you could consider talking specifically to Bub. This can help you bond with Bub, something that can be especially beneficial for partners who feel less connected to their baby than the mother does and for other family members who want to get a head start on bonding. If you don’t feel comfortable talking specifically to the baby (and let’s face it, if you’re not the baby’s mother you will probably feel uncomfortable talking to an unborn baby rather than talking to the mother) reading stories out loud can be a great alternative.
If there is an older child in the family, reading stories to that child and the unborn baby at the same time can help them bond before the baby is born. This might be a great way to help get an older child used to the prospect of having a sibling.
So, should you read to an unborn child? I would say that there’s no harm in doing it but that it’s not necessary. If you find it beneficial and you like doing it, then go ahead. If you find it a chore or it makes you uncomfortable, then wait til Bub is born.
Reading from birth
There is a raft of information showing how beneficial reading is for children and some of it clearly shows that the earlier children are read to the better the effects will be. Some research even shows that the effects are still apparent many years late. My previous blog post summarises some key research about these benefits but as a single example, a recent study on children aged six months and upwards showed that a child’s vocabulary is influenced by how often the child was read to up to four years previously as well as the quality of those reading experiences. Clearly, the earlier you start reading to the child in your life, the sooner they can start reaping the rewards of those interactions.
Most developed nations recommend reading out loud to children either from birth (e.g. Canada) or starting during infancy (e.g. America). I also thoroughly recommend starting from birth. Storytime is soothing for Bub and you, and it really helps with bonding. I can also say from first-hand experience that it helps develop Bub’s skills. For instance, my daughter could turn the pages of books by herself well before she was six months old.
I would also recommend choosing books that have black and white pictures given the substantial benefits of showing black and white images to newborns and babies up to six months of age. You can also combine this with tummy time if you want. We read stories illustrated with black and white images to our daughter during tummy time (and throughout the day) and we saw so many benefits for her. For instance, she was one of those babies that hated tummy time so those pictures and stories gave her something to focus on and distract her from the dreaded tummy time. We also noticed that she had a substantially longer attention span than what was quoted in the medical literature. And now that she’s a toddler, she loves story time. She’ll also frequently go into her room and pick books off the shelf to ‘read’ to herself.
Just remember that all reading out loud is beneficial for children so if you start later than six months, all is not lost – just get started as soon as you can!
Regardless of when you first begin reading to the child in your life, try to integrate as much reading as you can into their daily routine. Children’s author and qualified literacy expert, Mem Fox, recommends reading out loud to children for at least ten minutes every day. She recommends choosing fairly short books for younger children and says that three books of the right length should take about that amount of time. You might not manage that many minutes or books, especially if your child doesn’t like sitting still, but it’s a good goal to aim for.
Bedtime is a traditional time to read as it can be a key part of the calming ritual before sleep. Not all children respond to this though (for instance our daughter is often too tired to fully appreciate a book before bed so we do always read at least one at that time but don’t count it towards her ten minutes of story time). Even if your child does like bedtime stories, it’s a good idea to read at other times during the day too as this shows children that reading is fun and not just something you do to get ready for bed. I find reading stories after a nap can be quite good for young children as they’re fresh and alert enough to really pay attention to the story but you should do whatever works for you and the child in your life.