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Womb to World: Reading and Talking with Babies

It is never too early to talk.

Talking with your baby, reading with your baby, and engaging in conversations is a great way to foster learning. Now there is new research evidence suggesting that babies begin learning patterns of language even before they are born (1). What does this mean for expecting parents?

Talking and singing with your baby and reading with your baby even before birth can be a way to foster early social interactions and even later learning. How to do it? It is never too early to begin selecting books for your baby. Adventures, sports, cuisine, art, animals, science, and history are just some of the themes that you and your baby might enjoy sharing. What stories and topics do you enjoy? What themes will you enjoy sharing with your baby? You will likely enjoy sharing books with your baby that you enjoyed as a child. I just picked up Arnold Lobel’s “Frog & Toad Together” and The Peter Yarrow’s Songbook “Favorite Folk Songs” for my little niece and nephew still in their 29th week gestation. I’m sure they will already love hearing these stories and songs (not to mention hearing your voice).

Begin your babies’ book collection early. Get a library card. If you have time, you might even visit your local library and check out the children’s section before your baby arrives. Libraries can be a great place to read, relax and learn together. Libraries can also be a great place to meet other parents and children. You will notice that many libraries and even children’s bookshops offer free Story Time for babies, toddlers and children. You will certainly have less free time to look into library classes when your baby arrives, so consider planning ahead. As you are stocking up on diapers and bibs, pick up a library card and calendar and ask about local library classes for babies.

It is never too early to start developing a reading routine with your baby. One way to develop shared reading time is by exploring and reading books aloud to your baby even before he or she is born. Babies recognize your voice even before they are born (2). Once your baby arrives, try reading a bit each day.

By the time your newborn is about 4 months old you may want to read for 30 to 60 minutes a day. You might find time to read with your baby for 10 minutes in the morning. Then you might read with your newborn for 20 minutes as he or she is getting ready for nap time. You might read immediately after dinner for 10-15 minutes and for 15 minutes before your baby goes to sleep at night. If your baby has several caregivers, each of you can read at different times. Research shows that babies enjoy interacting with different people and learning from various conversational styles (3).


Likely your new baby will have visitors such as aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and grandparents. One way to foster a love of reading and communication is to ask your visitors to read a book with your baby!

What’s the scientific evidence?

For more information or to review the original references:

1) Eino Partanen et al. 2013 “Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth” at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. doi:10.1073/pnas.1302159110

Abstract: "Learning, the foundation of adaptive and intelligent behavior, is based on plastic changes in neural assemblies, reflected by the modulation of electric brain responses. In infancy, auditory learning implicates the formation and strengthening of neural long-term memory traces, improving discrimination skills, in particular those forming the prerequisites for speech perception and understanding. Although previous behavioral observations show that newborns react differentially to unfamiliar sounds vs. familiar sound material that they were exposed to as fetuses, the neural basis of fetal learning has not thus far been investigated. Here we demonstrate direct neural correlates of human fetal learning of speech-like auditory stimuli. We presented variants of words to fetuses; unlike infants with no exposure to these stimuli, the exposed fetuses showed enhanced brain activity (mismatch responses) in response to pitch changes for the trained variants after birth. Furthermore, a significant correlation existed between the amount of prenatal exposure and brain activity, with greater activity being associated with a higher amount of prenatal speech exposure. Moreover, the learning effect was generalized to other types of similar speech sounds not included in the training material. Consequently, our results indicate neural commitment specifically tuned to the speech features heard before birth and their memory representations.”

2) B.S. Kisilevsky et al. (2009). Fetal sensitivity to properties of maternal speech and language. Infant Behavior and Development, 59-71. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2008.10.002

Abstract: "Fetal speech and language abilities were examined in 104 low-risk fetuses at 33–41 weeks gestational age using a familiarization/novelty paradigm. Fetuses were familiarized with a tape recording of either their mother or a female stranger reading the same passage and subsequently presented with a novel speaker or language: Studies (1) & (2) the alternate voice, (3) the father’s voice, and (4) a female stranger speaking in native English or a foreign language (Mandarin); heart rate was recorded continuously. Data analyses revealed a novelty response to the mother’s voice and a novel foreign language. An offset response was observed following termination of the father’s and a female stranger’s voice. These findings provide evidence of fetal attention, memory, and learning of voices and language, indicating that newborn speech/language abilities have their origins before birth. They suggest that neural networks sensitive to properties of the mother’s voice and native-language speech are being formed.”

3) Anne E. Bigelow & Cindy DeCoste (2003) Sensitivity to Social Contingency From Mothers and Strangers in 2-, 4-, and 6-Month-Old Infants. Infancy, DOI: 10.1207/S15327078IN0401_6

Abstract: “Infants’ sensitivity to changes in social contingency was investigated by presenting 2-, 4-, and 6-month-old infants with 3 episodes of social interaction from mothers and strangers: 2 contingent interactions and 1 noncontingent replay. Three orders were presented: (a) contingent, noncontingent, contingent; (b) contingent, contingent, noncontingent; and (c) noncontingent, contingent, contingent. Contingency and carryover effects were shown to both mothers and strangers in the different orders of presentation. Infants were more visually attentive to contingent interactions than to the noncontingent replay when contingent interactions occurred prior to the replay, and the infants’ level of attention to the noncontingent replay carried over to subsequent contingent interactions. The 4- and 6-month-old infants showed contingency and carryover effects by their visual attention and smiling. Examination of effect sizes for attention suggests 2-month-old infants may be beginning to show the effects. Reasons for age changes in sensitivity to social contingency are discussed.”