We’ve all heard the advice to read, read, read to our kids—and we do. But have you ever wondered what’s so magical about reading that makes it so good for them, especially when they’re still babies?
Research shows that it’s not just sitting back and listening to you recite the words on the page that grows your child’s brain cells and builds his or her vocabulary.
Interacting with you is what matters.
These interactions happen more, and in important language-building ways, than in other kinds of play, according to a new study published in the journal Language Learning and Development. Babies make more speech-like sounds during reading than when playing with, say, toys or puppets. And parents, in turn, respond more to these sounds.
It’s this back-and-forth, give-and-take that’s the golden “secret sauce” of reading to a preverbal child.To show this, University of Iowa researchers compared how moms responded to their 12-month-olds in three different settings: while book reading, during puppet play, and during play using a Fisher-Price barn with buttons to push and knobs to turn. Not only did the babies vocalize more during reading time, but those vocalizations were more developmentally advanced. That is, they made more vowel-consonant sounds rather than just vowel sounds.
The moms then responded to these speech-like sounds, and they built on them. If a baby said, “ba,” for example, the mom would respond with something like “ba-ba” or “ball,” even if it didn’t have anything to do with the story being read. The researchers believe there’s something about the context of reading that makes parents more focused on language and inclined to expand on it.
“A lot of research shows that book reading even to infants as young as 6 months of age is important to language outcomes,” says Iowa psychologist Julie Gros-Louis. “I’m trying to explain why.”
Ready, set, read
Here’s what helps when reading to your baby:
Start when you feel comfortable—6 months is great.
You can read to your baby from birth (or heck, even before). But sometime between 4 and 6 months is an ideal window, since it’s when babies start to show an interest in books, even if mostly as objects to mouth, toss, or try to rip.
More importantly, around this age is when babies start to babble in ways that become speech-like. So when you read, they respond, and you’re more apt to respond in kind—that magic effect the Iowa researchers were describing.
Pick a good book.
Truth is, you can read any book to a baby. You could read the morning paper or your MBA textbooks. But for starter books, get some sturdy ones made from cloth, vinyl “bathtub books,” or thick board books. Babies like to explore with all their senses. Leave these out for playtime—but of course it’s also great to have regular books to look at under your supervision.
Also look for books that:
- Sound fun to say out loud (simple rhymes and repetitions help)
- Have simple and engaging illustrations
- Have pictures that match the text
- Encourage participation (lift the flap, pat the bunny, repeat the rhyme)
Want ideas? Check the annual Best Books for Babies list from the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library, the Fred Rogers Company, and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.
The babies in the Iowa study were in high chairs (so they wouldn’t’ wander off while the research was still taking place). But your lap makes an excellent spot for story time. You get extra bonding points along with the language benefits.
Linger over each page. Point out the cow that says moo or the big yellow sun. Turn the pages slowly. The goal isn’t to race through the story but to take your time in the moment.
Pay close attention to your baby
While you’re following the words on the page, notice what your baby is saying and doing, too. Follow her gaze. What is she looking at? Listen to her babbles. What’s she excited about? Even if it doesn’t sound like it, she’s imitating your sounds and working to make sense of language and how to form words herself. Answer them back as if you understood perfectly (even though you won’t). It’s not about “learning how to talk” per se, but the enjoyment of the very process of hearing sounds and making sounds.
Talk about the story and the pictures. In other words, don’t just read—have a chat.
Keep it short—but keep it going!
Each reading session doesn’t have to last long—just five or 10 minutes is fine. If your kid gets antsy, it’s over, no problem. What’s key, experts say, is that you keep at it over time. Read a little every day, right on into the school years. As your baby gets older, the books you choose will change, and you’ll notice your child’s level of involvement increase. You might even have trouble ending a reading session as your child keeps begging for “one more book.”
But that’s a good kind of problem to have.When you’re rushed, you can always say something like, “Let’s pick out three books for tonight and one for tomorrow.” Reading again tomorrow is something great to look forward to. So is having a bright, verbal child who loves having storytime with you (at any age).