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Expectant mothers frequently get bombarded with conflicting information about how to be the best parent they can, even before they give birth. When it comes to educating our children, research indicates a child’s education begins months before entering the world and years before they ever start school. One of the biggest debates centers on whether it’s beneficial to read to babies while in utero and the question of whether reading aloud during pregnancy will make your baby smarter.

Chances are you have heard women in your prenatal classes discuss how they read and talk to their unborn child each night. You may have seen it for yourself in the library, in the supermarket, even on the street, that pregnant mom who runs her hand over her belly while speaking words we believe only older children and adults can understand. Every time you do, you may think, “Does she know something I don’t?”

A 2013 study led by Psychology professor Christine Moon at Pacific Lutheran University found that babies can begin absorbing language as early as 10 weeks before birth, which is much sooner than previously believed. Analysis of the sucking habits belonging to a sample group of 40 babies comprised equally of males and females showed that newborns could distinguish between their mother’s native tongue and foreign ones within hours of being born. That means those moms we at first believed were overzealous, even a little bit looney, for talking and reading to their babies while in utero may be onto something. The question is what.

According to the study, babies begin developing the capacity to listen at around 30 gestational weeks, meaning they hear more than just our voices. Early Moments, a website devoted to promoting early literacy among children, warns expectant mothers not to be alarmed if they feel their baby respond to outside stimuli, particularly loud noises. The site advises soothing an unborn child by speaking gently to him or her.

Though an expectant mother has a distinct advantage over an expectant father when it comes to familiarizing a baby with her voice because it resonates throughout her body every time she talks regardless of who she’s speaking to, some experts suggest the larger benefit of speaking to a child in utero is in the relationships it can create and strengthen. According to proponents of this approach, not only will a developing baby become familiar with those closest to him or her, but a mom-to-be can also solidify her bond with those around her by sharing her pregnancy with them. Dad-to-be and extended family members may want to chime in and speak directly to a fetus, as well.

So what does all this mean? What it doesn’t mean is that if you begin reading “The Canterbury Tales” to your unborn child he or she will be able to parse Chaucer by their third birthday. Instead, the benefits of reading and speaking to your baby before birth rest primarily in the bonding you, your child, and other family members can potentially enjoy, and an opportunity for the baby to gain familiarity with speech patterns sooner than he or she ordinarily would.

Experts caution about the dangers that could exist when mothers become too focused on giving their unborn child a head start on their education and trying to increase intelligence, and reading begins to cause the exact stress it’s intended to alleviate. The best thing mothers who are expecting can do for their babies is create and maintain a stress-free environment. Since reading out loud is one way to promote relaxation for a mother, baby, and anyone else who wishes to participate, it’s time well spent. So curl up with a book, whether by Chaucer or Dr. Seuss, because if reading makes you happy, guaranteed your baby is going to be happy, too. And what better way is there than that to promote success?                       

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Stacey Freeman

Stacey Freeman is a writer and blogger from the New York City area, a divorced single mom, lifestyle editor at Worthy, and the founder and managing director of Write On Track, LLC.

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