So, you’re going to be a dad, congratulations! I’m sure you will have lots of different emotions, and especially if this is your first child, you may want to find out what your baby and partner need during pregnancy, and what your role is.
There are courses and organisations which can guide you through this time and answer your questions. But in this blog I will explore the benefits of storytelling to your child before your baby is born and give you some tips on how and when to start.
My Name is Tim Porteus, I’m a storyteller and dad to five children, we are all part of a blended family. From the outset I knew I’d tell stories to my children as they were growing up, and still do, even to my two adult children.
Talking is good for your baby.
Let’s start by looking at how talking to your baby during pregnancy could benefit your child. You will probably know that this is something midwives always encourage, especially in the later stages of pregnancy. And it has real benefits for you child.
By the third trimester (from around the 28th week of pregnancy onward) your baby’s auditory system has developed to the point where he or she can hear your voice. The rapid brain development at this time also means that new neural connections are being made, stimulated by experiences such as hearing sounds and voices. The sounds that your baby hears regularly are being hard-wired in the brain. That means a voice, if heard regularly, will be recognised and remembered by your child even before birth.
It's the mum’s voice a baby will hear most, of course, as baby and her mum are together all the time. Even in general daily conversations, Mum’s voice will be the one heard most clearly as her voice is not so muffled by abdominal tissue and amniotic fluid as other sounds are.
Research has shown that the mother’s voice can have a soothing effect on her child in the womb. The baby’s heart has been shown to slow in response to the reassuring and familiar sound of Mum’s voice.
It’s not just the sound of Mum’s voice being remembered, but also the emotions connected to it. If a voice or sound is connected to a calming and relaxed state, then that connection will be remembered by the baby too.
This means the voices a baby has heard while in the womb will be familiar when he or she is born, and those associated with positive feelings can offer immediate comfort and reassurance at birth. This is why the mum’s voice can be a reassuring welcome into this world. Her baby will literally recognise mum by the sound of her voice.
I think this is amazing, and it shows there is a real purpose to talking to your unborn child, especially in those crucial 12 weeks or so before the due date, but ideally even before.
So that’s talking, but why storytelling?
Of course, you can talk to your baby as well, when the opportunity arises. I’d suggest doing this as often as possible. But expectant dads are usually not with their baby all the time and many unavoidably spend a good deal of time away during pregnancy, working for example.
I know from my experience this can create a feeling of disconnection. The physical disconnection is understandable, but it’s important to recognise that while men can’t carry their unborn baby in a womb, they can carry their unborn baby in their heart.
During your partner’s pregnancy, your emotional attachment, your sense of joy, excitement, anxiety, responsibility and love for your baby can be just as strong.
The trouble is men have traditionally been taught by society to be emotionally reserved during this time; that it’s not about them, our job is to do practical things to help. And that’s true. But you are going to be a parent as well, with all the feelings that come with that.
This is where storytelling comes in, as a benefit both for you, your baby and your partner.
Telling stories helps you and your partner to put some time aside for it, and gives these moments added purpose.
A story also gives you a repetitive narrative. Repetition is vital for your child’s developing brain, it helps hard-wire learning. This is why young children love to hear the same story over and over or sing the same song.
While it may seem boring for you at first, if you repeat a story regularly it can have benefits for your child in the early stages of brain development, even before birth.
Your baby will remember it - not the actual meaning of the words of course - but the rhythm and pitch of your voice in the telling of it. When you later tell the same story after your baby is born, your son or daughter will be comforted by the familiarity of your voice and the recognizable rhythm of the spoken words.
In addition, the storytelling during pregnancy can be a real cosy together time for you and your partner. It can be a time for you to learn some children’s stories together and practice your storytelling technique which will hopefully continue once your child is born.
And of course, if you tell your story regularly at a time when Mum feels relaxed and comfortable, then your storytelling can be an immediate soothing experience for your child when born, because it is associated with a feeling of well- being.
When to do it?
Always remember, the most important thing is that your partner is comfortable and enjoys the experience too, and it’s her choice when and how, or if, it happens!
You may have little experience of reading a story out loud or feel uncomfortable doing it at the best of times. Some of us have literacy challenges which makes the idea of reading quite scary. Others may just feel a tad awkward and unsure about the idea and would like tips on how to make it more enjoyable.
So here are some simple tips based on my experience for storytelling during pregnancy to make the experience less awkward.
Give baby a name. One of the things I found helpful in alleviating my initial sense of awkwardness was referring to our baby as a person with a name. If you haven’t decided on a name or don’t want to use it before birth it could be a feature from the scan photo such as “button nose” or “tiny foot,” or an endearing name like “sweet-heart” or “wee one.”
Visualise your baby. This means seeing your baby in your mind’s eye as a little person listening to your story and responding to your voice. A scan photo or even a film of your baby moving in the womb will help you do this. Some dads have told me that it was when they first saw their child in the scan that the emotional impact of knowing they were going to be a parent really hit them. I can relate to that myself.
Physical touch. Seeing and feeling your baby move in your partner’s womb is incredibly powerful. And you can do this while storytelling to your child, as we will explore later.
If you try these things, they may help you and your partner to feel more comfortable telling stories.
Set time aside. Try to make a conscious effort to set time aside for your storytelling. Life can be hectic and moods unpredictable, so it doesn’t need to be at a fixed time or place. But try to make it as regular as possible – but not so it’s a chore or duty. As I’ve said, it’s vital that your partner feels comfortable and enjoys this family time together. If she feels any sense of obligation or pressure then it will be counter-productive for all three of you, as your baby will sense the anxiety and neither you nor your partner will enjoy it.
Reduce background noise. Make sure the TV and phones are switched off, and that background noise is reduced to a minimum. There are lots of noises in the womb so reducing any other competing sounds will help your child to hear and listen to your voice.
Just the three of you. These storytelling sessions should be intimate moments between you all, so a private space, where you won’t be interrupted or feel self-conscious is important. Remember, physical and emotional comfort for the mum is essential, so she decides what works best.
Say Hi. Once you are comfortable, you can begin your storytelling session. I never just launch into a story, even at storytelling sessions – it’s always best to have an introduction or warm up. You could have a regular way to introduce yourself, which should include the mum, helping her to feel relaxed and involved.
Choose a phrase you feel works and use it each time. For example, “hey sweetheart, it’s dad here again”, or whatever you feel comfortable with. Then talk about your day in simple terms. “It’s been really busy at work today but I’m glad to be home now with your mum”.
Help mum feel happy and relaxed. If your partner is relaxed and happy, she will release endorphins, often described as “feel-good hormones”. Your unborn baby will respond to this and feel safe and relaxed as he or she listens to your voice and the rhythm of your story.
Say things that make your partner feel appreciated and loved, and even amused. Have a fun conversation together, knowing your wee one is with you and listening.
Choose a good story. The best type of story at this stage is one that’s not too long and rhymes. Rhyming stories help babies recognise and predict sounds. There are many rhyming story books available. Choose a story that you and your partner like, and tell it to your baby on a regular basis.
Of course, you can tell the story without a book if you have a story in your head and know you will remember it for next time. It can even be something as simple as a nursery rhyme you remember from your own childhood.
It’s up to you, and your partner; do what feels comfortable for you both.
Add a Nice Touch. If your partner is happy with it, gently touch and stroke her tummy as you tell your story. You could match the touch with parts of the story or rhyme. Be patient and gentle. You might be able to feel your baby move only millimetres away from your hand, and perhaps identify a foot, or an elbow.
Sing to your baby as well.
Try to add a song to your storytelling. I know this may be a bridge to far for some, but research shows that babies in the womb (and after birth) respond very strongly to singing and music. All the benefits of talking are enhanced when the words are sung.
You don’t need to be Bruce Springsteen (or whoever you consider a good singer). It can be a lullaby, a singing nursery rhyme, or something you make up yourself, once again ideally containing rhyme. You’ll likely be singing nursery songs to your baby when she or he is born, so this is a good time to choose which ones you prefer!
When my younger children were in the womb, I decided to use the traditional Scots lullaby called Coulter’s Candy (Ally Bally Bee.) I sang as often as I could when their mum was in the mood.
When Skye was born her mum was exhausted and so I got early skin-to-skin time with her on my chest. She was still crying when I placed her there, but when I started singing, she immediately calmed and lay quietly, sucking her thumb while listening to the song. Words just cannot convey the emotional power of moments like this.
Maybe Skye’s response was a coincidence, but I don’t think so. The song had the same soothing effect for Manja when she was a baby. I believe they recognised the song and my voice as familiar and reassuring, so it calmed them.
When I told stories that were familiar to them the same thing happened. It really seemed like they were remembering the story and being soothed by my telling of it.
Research backs this up; it’s shown if you talk, sing, and tell stories to your child when he or she is in the womb, then your baby will recognise not only your voice, but the rhythm of a story spoken or song sung, and so can be comforted by it. (Not all births are the same. My wee boy Lewis was very distressed when born, and he took some time before he could be soothed.)
Beginning of attachment to dad
So, there really is a point in telling stories, and singing songs, to your baby during pregnancy. It can enhance your feeling of connection, help you bond with your baby, create cosy intimate and loving moments with your partner, and help your baby recognise you by your voice and story.
So, when your daughter or son are born, you can hold your child in your arms for the first time, and introduce yourself; “Hi, remember me? I’m your dad, yes that was me telling you this story and singing this song, and now I can tell it to you personally.”
Your stories and songs will be a reassuring and welcoming gift for your child as they enter this world.
And your storytelling will have begun to lay the early foundations of your child’s secure attachment to you, their Dad.