Tonight in Cincinnati, a mother is building her daughter’s brain, without lifting a finger. Well, except to turn the pages of The Going-to-Bed Book by Sandra Boynton.
Parent-child reading helps prepare infants for future learning, observes Danielle Z. Kassow, Ph.D., of the Talaris Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization studying early brain development. “Experiences with parents help the brain get organized,” Kassow says. “Any experiences that are loving, warm, nurturing — such as singing, playing or reading together — affect the wiring of the brain.”
Positive memories of snuggling and reading together build an enduring interest in books. After all, as adults, many of us still relax before bed with a good novel. In order to create a budding bookworm, take the time to read with your child consistently.
Plus, reading together boosts long-term success, Kassow points out, because it increases attachment. “Research has found that when children have a secure attachment to parents in infancy,” Kassow says, “they have better responsiveness to reading when in toddler and preschool years.”
TIPS FOR READING TO YOUR INFANT:
READ BEFORE BABY ARRIVES
The benefits of reading to a baby start even before birth, while Baby is still in utero. Moms who talk, sing and coo to their babies in the womb actually play a part in shaping their baby’s brain, according to research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While it’s nothing new that babies can hear their mother’s voice before they are born, current evidence shows they can also recognize subtle changes in pitch and indeed process complex information.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland looked at 33 moms-to-be, and examined their babies following birth. While pregnant, 17 of the mothers listened to a CD of two, four-minute sequences of made-up words in varying volumes from week 29 until birth. The moms and babies heard the nonsense words about 50 to 71 times.
Following birth, the researchers tested all 33 babies for normal hearing and then performed an EEG (electroencephalograph) brain scan to see if the newborns responded differently to the made-up words and different pitches. Babies who listened to the CD in utero recognized the made-up words and noticed the pitch changes; infants who did not hear the CD did not, the researchers found. They were able to spot this because the brain activity in the babies picked up when those words were played, while babies who didn’t hear the CD in the womb did not react as much.
So is it time to go out looking for fetal brain boosters? Maybe not. But definitely time for some sweet singing and conversation, and yes, reading aloud some of your favorite stories from childhood.
According to whattoexpect.com, babies will typically respond to voices and noises around 23 – 25 weeks, so that’s a good time to start reading aloud. There are plenty of benefits for your family, too — settling down to read can be very relaxing, and letting Big Bro or Sis read aloud to their soon-to-arrive sibling is a good way for them to connect!
CAPTIVATE BABY’S SENSES
Brain areas controlling vision and sensory integration are the first to develop, say researchers. So it’s no surprise that babies love titles with touchable fur, bright colors, scratch-and-sniff strawberries; or books that squeak and crinkle.
Remember, infants explore with their mouths — in fact, all that tasty cardboard is good for your curious child. They see books as an everyday object they feel comfortable playing with, rather than an off-limits treat. “It’s great for a young child to hold the book, and put it in their mouth,” Kassow says. Keep books easily accessible, so your baby can crawl over and pick one up any time.
SING A STORY
Babies love poems, songs and nursery rhymes, particularly when they’re sung by you or another trusted caregiver. Once you’ve got a book memorized (it won’t take long), try singing the text while in the car, or waiting at a doctor’s office as a distraction. You may be building long-lasting verbal skills, too — a recent study from Georgetown University suggests that music and language share the same brain real estate.
SELECT BABY-FRIENDLY TOPICS
Animals, routines (bedtime, getting dressed), food; or books with many simple, bright illustrations and few words. Talk about what you see on each page, and don’t worry about following a narrative. Kassow points to studies showing that children exposed to a wide variety of words have a better vocabulary by school entrance.
Try the Baby Unplugged board book series designed by Dr. John Hutton, a researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Reading and Literacy Discovery Center and owner of blue manatee children’s bookstore. The books celebrate iconic childhood experiences, like blankets, going to the beach, exploring the backyard, meeting new pets, playing with water, and even books themselves. Books with a clear rhyming pattern, like Dr. Seuss titles, are also a good choice as the rhythms can be soothing.
SEE READING AS A FORM OF PLAY
Don’t feel silly putting on a show while you read to your baby — make funny noises, speak dramatically or in “parentese,” the sing-song voice that parents worldwide use to converse with babies. Your enthusiasm demonstrates that “books can be exciting and entertaining,” Kassow says. Plus, many researchers believe “parentese” helps prep baby brains for the natural patterns of everyday language.
BILINGUALISM AND BOOKS
According to research from the University of Washington, baby brains learn language from human interaction, not expensive foreign-language videos. If you’re bilingual, you can help baby’s future fluency by reading books in your native (or second) language.
Too busy for books? Don’t despair. Once babies start crawling, they may not want to stop for stories. A couple of strategies: read during mealtime, playtime or bath time. You can read to your child as she motors around the room. Kassow suggests keeping reading sessions short: “It’s fine to stop halfway through, and come back to the book later on.” Nestle on the couch or before bed and read to your baby. He will enjoy the sound of your voice, particularly if it’s part of a comforting nighttime routine. Kassow acknowledges that some parents don’t feel comfortable reading aloud to an infant. But don’t wait until your child is a toddler to bestow the benefits of a good book.
WHAT’S ON BABY’S BOOKSHELF?
Amy Schardein, children’s librarian at Kenton County Public Library, suggests the following titles to read aloud with your infant:
Hello Animals (by Smitri Prasadam) is a black and white book that’s perfect for newborns and their developing vision. This one has a touch of sparkle for added interest.
Fiona’s Feelings (by Dr. John Hutton) takes a gentle, loving look at feelings using simple words and our favorite hippo, Fiona!
Indestructibles: Baby Animals (by Amy Pixton) is a book (and others in the series) that can’t be ripped and can be tossed in the washing machine if it gets yucky.
Where is Baby’s Bellybutton? (by Karen Katz) is a book filled with bright illustrations on sturdy flaps that are fun for little fingers to flip.
Moo, Baa, La La La! (by Sandra Boynton) uses rhythmic text and silly rhymes to make this book just as fun for parents to read as it is for babies to hear.
My First Baby Signs (by Phil Conigliaro) helps you teach baby to sign well before she can speak! A simple book with common baby sign language words is a great way to get a helpful skill started.
The Babies and Doggies Book (by John Schindel and Molly Woodward) uses adorable photographs of babies and dogs to illustrate their similarities — a must for dog-owning families.
One Two Three, Mother Goose (by Iona Opie) is filled with classic nursery rhymes that are brought to life with charming illustrations from Rosemary Wells.