Reading to Babies: Building Better Brains

ReadingtoBabiesphotoforblog “The greatness of the human personality begins at the hour of birth. From this almost mystic affirmation there comes what might seem a strange conclusion: that education must start from birth.” -Maria Montessori

The most recent research by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2014 states that babies should be read to by their parents beginning at birth (and the Academy has revised its policy statement on early literacy to reflect this recommendation). The critical years for early brain development are from zero to three years of age, so the AAP feels that parents reading to their babies starting at birth will foster brain development at a critical time, as well as nuture closeness and reading success at a later date.

Cooing, talking, singing, and reading are ways to attract babies to the sounds and rhythm of their language, and at the same time, serve to bond infants and parents to one another. As babies are exposed to more and more language, they begin to store the parts and patterns of words distinct to their mother-language. They file away these word-sounds in a part of their brain they will later need for learning to read (Rosenkoetter & Knapp-Philo, 2006). Indeed, babies are learning about their language long before they know how to speak.

Additionally, the AAP recommends that pediatric providers promote early literacy development for children beginning in infancy and continuing at least until the age of kindergarten entry by (1) advising all parents that reading aloud with young children can enhance parent-child relationships and prepare young minds to learn language and early literacy skills; (2) counseling all parents about developmentally appropriate shared-reading activities that are enjoyable for children and their parents and offer language-rich exposure to books, pictures, and the written word; (3) providing developmentally appropriate books given at health supervision visits for all high-risk, low-income young children; (4) using a robust spectrum of options to support and promote these efforts; and (5) partnering with other child advocates to influence national messaging and policies that support and promote these key early shared-reading experiences.

One of the best ways to understand the neuroscience of the early brain and early literacy development is through a sports metaphor. “Serve and Return” refers to the infant’s extraordinary capacity to take turns not only initiating an interaction (Serve) but also responding to a conversation (Return) with the most important people in the infant’s life.

When babies and parents are interacting, two important things happen: 1) the relationship between babies and parents deepens and bonds and, 2) this bond facilitates the baby’s desire to not only listen for the rhythm and patterns of the language, but to study what word-sounds look like on their parents’ mouths.

In other settings, such as the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), infant development an NICU specialists feel that bonding and attachment will be enhanced by the closeness that reading to your newborn brings. As D.W. Winnicot (1965), the English pediatrician and psychologist so eloquently states, “A baby alone does not exist.”

The presence of a parent is the most fundamental basic security an infant can have, and the attachment relationship between a child and his parent is one of the most important factors in an infant’s future growth and development.

Perri Klass, M.D FAAP, national medical director of Reach Out and Read, is an expert on reading to babies. As Dr. Klass told AAP News, parents need to “build interactions with their children into their everyday lives because this can create nurturing relationships, which promote early brain development, early literacy, and language development and school readiness.”

Emily Lawton, NICU Consultant, asserts, “Reading is all fine and good, but it’s about the relationships and how those relationships build better brains. Reading is the tool.”

I believe it is important for every parent to know about the benefits of reading to babies. Many programs that support early brain development are in agreement. Programs such as Raising Readers, Reach Out and Read, Zero to Three, Read Aloud and Read, Sing and Talk are some of the wonderful programs that stand behind reading to babies.

Wonderful, free information from the AAP and other programs is available to use
with our babies, at early infant development programs, childcare, library programs
and organizations. Check out the following toolkits to download great resources:

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Patty Weiner is a mother and grandmother whose career spans over 40 years as a child life specialist, an educator, a child and family advocate and a health education specialist. Patty has developed a program for Reading to Babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), which fosters bonding and attachment and helps build better brains. She recently joined the Research Committee of Child Life of Greater New York (CLGNY), is on the Diversity Committee at Bank Street College, and will be a Presenter at The 29th Annual Infancy Institute on Reading to Babies. Patty also continues to work with children referred by the Making Headway Foundation as an Educational Consultant, helping families of children who have had brain tumors receive the educational services they need in school in the NY Tri-state area. She is the author of a book for Parents/Caregivers entitled, Taking Your Child to the Doctor or The Hospital: Helpful suggestions and practical tips to make your child’s visit more comfortable.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

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