NZ Woman's Weekly

Reading to your unborn baby

It may feel daft, but reading aloud to your unborn baby could help with their language skills. My husband looked at me like I’d completely lost the plot when I started reading Hairy Maclary books to my stomach, but he knew better than to say anything to a hormonal pregnant woman.

I could have sworn that when I read them to my daughter just a few days after she was born, as soon as I said the magic words, “Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy,” her head turned towards me, her eyes widened and she suddenly became alert, as if she was really paying attention!

Mind you, I did also notice the same reaction when the Coronation Street theme tune came on TV. Perhaps my story reading wasn’t the only thing she was listening to when she was in my womb.

Research does show that unborn babies are aware of noises outside the womb, especially in the weeks just before they arrive, and their mother’s voice is one of the things they are particularly attuned to.

Scientists can’t say exactly how much this can help with mother-baby bonding or the child’s ability to develop language skills later in life, but a Venezuelan study into the effect of pre- and postnatal stimulation on babies did find those who were stimulated with both sound and touch in the womb appeared to be more alert at birth, had better head control and were able to turn their heads in the direction of their parents’ voices.

The research suggested that talking to the unborn baby not only helped to form a bond, but prepared them for what they’d encounter once they were born. Now, a new study has found babies not only listen to what we are saying, but they are starting to learn language before they are even born.

It had been previously thought that newborns don’t begin to discriminate between language sounds until their first few months of life, but the research indicates they may have the capacity to learn and remember elementary sounds of their language from their mother during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Unborn babies are remarkably responsive. Scientists’ studies have found that playing music or reading to your baby belly greatly increase the newborn’s development

And babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their mother’s native language and a foreign language, scientists have now discovered. The study suggests babies begin absorbing language while in the womb, earlier than previously thought.

Researchers in the joint US-Swedish study say it is the first study that shows we learn about the particular speech sounds of our mother’s language before we are born. They came to the conclusion after carrying out tests on 30-hour-old babies in the US and Sweden. The babies heard either Swedish or English vowels and could control how many times they heard the vowels by sucking on a dummy connected to a computer.

In both countries, the babies sucked longer for the foreign language than they did for their native tongue, suggesting they knew the difference. Other baby experts believe talking to your unborn or playing music helps to develop the brain by establishing connections between the neurons, or nerve cells. This creates the pathways along which messages from the brain travel.

Not only can an unborn baby react to sound, but they can use their senses of taste and sight. Tests have shown that a baby’s taste buds develop at around six months’ gestation and they can tell whether the amniotic fluid tastes sweet, sour or bitter.

If the fluid is sweet, their rate of swallowing doubles, but if it is sour they swallow more slowly. Other research suggests that your emotions can affect your baby when you are pregnant. There’s a theory that the hormones your body releases when you are stressed may cross the placenta and affect the baby’s nervous system.

It’s thought prolonged exposure to stress hormones in the womb may lead to the baby having to constantly deal with a high-stress environment and be linked to problems such as premature birth, low birth weight, lung complications and learning disorders.

Some studies show babies exposed to a lot of stress in the uterus are more likely to develop chronic health problems as adults, such as heart disease and diabetes. By the same token, when a mum-to-be’s levels of endorphins rise, the baby appears to be calmer.

Marcus Lush cover

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Marcus Lush counts down to baby no. 2

In this week's issue of New Zealand Woman's Weekly magazine: Marcus Lush counts down to baby no. 2.

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