Do You Really Need to Read to Your Baby?

Just a generation ago, parents were worrying about the impact of too much television on their children. Today, parents have television, touch-screen tablets and smartphones to contend with. As a result, there is growing concern in scientific communities as to the potential effects of all this quick and easy technology on children—from attention disorders to anti-social behaviour.[1]

Critically, the ease of distracting a baby or toddler with tablets means many parents are spending less time reading to their children: four out of five British parents say that it’s difficult to find an opportunity to read to their children because of busy lifestyles.[2]

Reading matters more than ever

However, the developmental importance of reading to babies and toddlers is not to be underestimated. Sharing a story with little ones helps build key skills that will serve them throughout their lives.[3] According to developmental psychologist Professor Anne Ferland at Stanford University, language development in babies and toddlers is a pivotal indicator of how they will perform in school and in life,[4] while further research indicates that the earlier babies are read to, the greater the long-term benefits.[5]

Here, we explore the reasons for reading to babies even before they’re able to coo or babble, and delve a little deeper into the crucial skills reading helps develop.

Language and communication skills

We’ve all heard that babies’ minds are like sponges, absorbing vast amounts of new information so that they can develop the skills to thrive within their environment. This means that even before babies are able to form their first word, they’re listening, learning and absorbing the language they hear every day. As Dr. Marianella Casasola of Cornell University notes in her studies of infant cognitive development and early word learning in preverbal babies, infants are learning about their language long before they learn to speak their language.[6]

Animated, interactive story time with your baby therefore supports all areas of language learning, including speech, expressive and receptive language, and the ability to master the fundamentals of language. For example, studies show that reading bedtime stories boosts vocabulary acquisition,[7] which in turn improves comprehension and long-term academic performance.[8] Professor Erika Hoff of Florida Atlantic University affirms this, saying that babies need more than just “simplistic baby talk”; hearing rich and diverse language through reading helps them to learn the complexities of their language.[9]

Better concentration

According to the British Psychological Society, reading to children lengthens their attention span and improves concentration abilities.[10] Although, initially, babies and toddlers may wriggle about and be easily distracted, using tactics such as labelling (pointing to and naming pictures) and acting things out while reading will help settle them. Colourful, eye-catching books made of highly tactile materials like Hape’s eco-friendly Vegetable and Fruit books are also ideal for keeping reading time interesting and are easy for babies to handle.[11]

By inadvertently teaching your baby to concentrate in this way, you’ll also be teaching self-discipline and heightening their memory retention.[12] As Prof. Ferland puts it, “Books are fantastic because they exercise their brains. They have to keep up with what happened a few pages ago.”[13]

Build your bond

Story time is a special, quiet time of the day that is enjoyed by babies at any age, even if they are only months old. According to Mary Ann Abrams, MD, “Reading a book to your newborn is a one-on-one activity that you can really turn into a special time with your baby. It exposes the baby to the sound of your voice, which is soothing for him.”[14] Similarly, the British Psychological Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that sharing a story at bedtime can strengthen parents’ bond with their child.[15]

Boost emotional development

Reading also supports babies’ social and emotional development. Prof. Fernald points out that babies and toddlers overhearing conversations or listening to audiovisual media cannot effectively pick up different emotions that are expressed.[16] Alternatively, using a range of voices and emotions while reading exposes little ones to many different feelings, thus enhancing their emotional growth. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this is because reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and builds social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.[17]

An enduring love of reading

As story time becomes part of your daily routine, you and your baby will begin to look forward to this quiet time together. This way, you are creating a positive association with reading for your baby, thus instilling a lifelong love of books in your child. A study spearheaded by the UK’s National Literacy Trust supports this, showing that children who read stories daily are more likely to enjoy stories “a lot” than those who do not read often.[18] 

Start small

The main concern for many busy parents is how to find the time to read with their little ones. Fortunately, story time needn’t be any longer than 15 to 30 minutes, particularly for babies and toddlers whose attention spans are still developing. Seize whatever small window of time you can, and embrace it as a special moment for bonding and learning—it’s a small seed you can plant to reap lifelong rewards for your budding bookworm.

For more tips on educational playtime, visit The Little Woodpecker, your online destination for eco-friendly toys.

[1] Worthen (2012)

[2] Dugdale and Jama (2012)

[3] Wells (1985)

[4] Connor (2014)

[5] Dunst et al. (2012)

[6] Kopko (n.d.)

[7] Ninio (1983)

[8] Biemiller (2001)

[9] Sample (2014)

[10] Blake and Maise (2008)

[11] Reading Rockets (2008)  

[13] Connor (2014)

[14]DiProperzio (n.d.)

[15] Blake and Maise (2008) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (2014)

[16] DiProperzio (n.d.)

[17] American Academy of Pediatrics (2014)

[18] Formby (2014)