At around six months pregnant, I decided to start reading to my baby. A baby can hear and react to music and voices from roughly 24 weeks, and even more amazingly, they start learning language before they are born. The melodic ‘shapes’ of their cries in the first days after birth are related to the inflections of the language spoken by their parents, which they have heard in the months before they were born. (Whether this makes a night of screaming easier to cope with or not is less certain.) There’s even research to suggest that babies in the womb can interpret mood and feeling in voices. So, when the baby books suggest you might like to talk or read to your unborn baby, they’ve got science on their side.
I’ve been finding a real pleasure in reading aloud and knowing the baby can hear. I started out with nursery rhymes and children’s poems, because poems for kids generally use a lot of repetition, which I thought might be something the baby could recognise.
So I made a start, armed with the Faber Book of Nursery Verse from 1965, which I found in a secondhand shop.
The main joy has been discovering rhymes and songs from my own childhood, sometimes half remembered, sometimes submerged in my subconscious so deeply that recognising the oddly familiar words is like a hand grabbing at me from the dark water of a canal.
Dance, Thumbkin, dance:
Dance, ye merrymen, everyone,
For Thumbkin, he can dance alone,
Thumbkin, he can dance alone.
Foreman, Longman, Ringman and Littleman also dance – I know they are fingers because I remember this rhyme has a tune which you wiggle your fingers to. But the tune has been eluding me like a slippery fish in that canal of the subconscious.
Other rhymes are disquietingly violent, and still have the air of threat hanging over them which somehow made them magical to me as a kid.
John Patch made the match,
John Clint made the flint,
John Puzzle made the muzzle,
John Crowder made the powder,
And John Block made the stock,
And John Wyming made the priming,
And John Brammer made the rammer,
And John Scott made the scho,
But John Ball shot them all.
Of course, the content of what I’m reading makes little difference to my baby, so I’ve also branched out into reading more adult poems. Still looking for stuff that rhymes and has a strong rhythm, another secondhand shop find has been useful- Richard Church’s Poems for Speaking. Long poems like Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott are a pleasure to read, whether there’s a baby listening or not, and it’s full of lilting, lullaby cadences.
I’ve also dug out a book I had as a kid, a poetry collection called I Like This Poem, which I read to the point that it fell apart. I remembered it as being full of chewy, stomping poetry that you have to say out loud, and reading it again now I was right. I love Hillaire Belloc’s Do You Remember, Miranda.
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar?
Reading to the baby appears to have relaxed her or him to such an extent that I’m two weeks overdue, so I’m going into hospital to be induced in a couple of hours. I can’t wait to get started reading together on the outside.