I have a strange tendency of giving books at baby showers. I usually throw in a cute outfit or a pair of shoes that was just so tiny and impractical I couldn’t pass it up, but the core of the gift is always a stack of books. The exact titles may change from baby to baby, but I tend to stay within a few favorite authors and keep to the classics and beloved series rather than the newer, trendier books. I feel like these are a good foundation for a future library for the little one. It surprised me though, when I went to a recent baby shower, gift bag full of books in tow, and discovered that the mother-to-be not only already had an impressively stocked bookshelf in the nursery, but reported reading to her baby every day. I knew that babies could hear before birth, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they might actually benefit from something like being read bedtime stories. Was it really going to make a difference in how the baby develops after birth?

There has been tremendous debate over the perceived benefits of speaking and reading to babies before birth and through infancy. While few would claim that babies cannot hear prior to birth, there are some who question how much babies actually hear and if deliberate speaking and reading have any real effect. To explore this concept, researchers have performed case studies involving following babies from before birth through their infancies. Babies in the test group were read and spoken to on a regular basis throughout pregnancy and then after birth. Researchers found the babies in the test group to be more responsive to language, more aware of books and print language and further along in language development than those babies who were not read and spoken to regularly.

What this means for the future development of these children is greater confidence with the language, more expansive vocabularies, and greater interest in reading and learning in general. Many experts are now stating the importance of babies being read aloud to on a regular basis, calling this activity central to a child’s ability to read and write later in life.

There is still some discourse over exactly how much babies hear before they are born, and if they are learning language based on hearing actual words, or if it is simply the pattern of voices making them recognize the language and prime them for internalizing and utilizing it as they develop. However it works, I know that I will keep up my habit of buying books for new babies!

Source: Jeanne W. Holland. Reading Aloud with Infants: The Controversy, the Myth, and a Case Study. Early Childhood Education Journal. Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 383-385.