Ask I-LABS Outreach: What are the Benefits of Reading to Babies?

Story time is brain-building time, even for babies who aren't speaking yet.

When it comes to the importance of reading to kids, Dr. Seuss explains it well:

"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go," the beloved author wrote in The Cat in the Hat.

And literacy experts agree. In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement recommending that caregivers read aloud to children daily, beginning in infancy.

It may seem odd to read to a tiny baby—it's not like they have the language skills to follow along. But brain science shows that infants are picking up on language more than we realize. In fact, months before their first words, baby brains show that they are rehearsing how to make speech sounds.

In this latest installment of "Ask I-LABS Outreach," we're taking a look at why reading to babies and young children is so important. What are the benefits and what does a quality reading experience look like? In our busy lives, what are some things caretakers can do to increase the amount of reading they do with children?

The Benefits

There are several benefits in reading to infants and children. Reading enhances parent-child interactions and nurtures a child’s social-emotional development. In addition to the physical closeness that is present during reading, books provide opportunities for other types of social play as well. Making funny sounds or singing songs prompted by content in books are great ways to engage a child while reading to them.

Building Baby's Vocabulary

Reading aloud is a fantastic way to expose children to a rich variety of words, including words that might not be present in everyday, typical conversations. Choosing books that focus on different animals, noises, or games are all good choices for presenting children with a nice mix of words.

Books with lots of different pictures also provide an opportunity for parents and caregivers to teach children about language. “See the duck? The duck is yellow! What else in this picture is yellow?” Exposure to different types of pictures and text provide other opportunities for story telling that exist outside the pages of a book.

Use 'Parentese'

Although the number of varied words a child hears is important, the quality of these words also helps children learn language. Research shows that infants prefer infant-directed speech, or “parentese" and it is linked to greater language growth later in childhood.

With the slowed down, exaggerated sing song way of talking, caregivers who use parentese allow infants to pick out individual sounds and grabs their attention. Reading to children (especially infants) in this tone of voice makes it easier for them to learn a variety of new words.

Finding the Time

With all the commitments we have, it may be difficult to find time to read to your infant or child daily. I'm a working parent—I know first-hand how hard it can be. In our next post for "Ask I-LABS Outreach," I'll describe how I managed to find surprising moments when I could squeeze in some time to read to my infant daughter.

Do you have tips on how to make reading to children part of your routine? Please email them to ilabsout@uw.edu or share them on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

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About the Author:
Jennifer Larson, PhD

Larson is a former I-LABS Outreach Specialist. She earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Colorado, where her research focused on the developing auditory system. She now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

About "Ask I-LABS Outreach:" This is an occasional series based on discussions the I-LABS Outreach team has with parents, caregivers, educators, and others interested in the science of early learning and how it applies to everyday interactions with children. Suggest a topic by emailing ilabsout@uw.edu.

See Previous Posts
How Can I Make My Child Exceptionally Smart?
What's the Big Deal About Screen Media?
How Similar is Theater to I-LABS Research?
How Do Babies Learn Two Languages at Once?

Follow the series on the I-LABS website, Facebook or Twitter pages. Or, sign up for the quarterly Outreach newsletter by emailing ilabsout@uw.edu.

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