New Research: Reading to Your Baby May Help Grow Their Language

We’ve all heard the benefits of reading to toddlers and young children. It helps with language development and early literacy growth. And it’s a chance for parents to bond with their little ones. But how early should you start the reading habit? Is there any language benefit to reading to your baby?

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine aimed to find out, and the results support reaching for a book as soon as your new baby is home.

Study looks at how reading to your baby affects their language development

We know that expressive and receptive language development begins early in life. While the benefits of reading to toddlers older than 12 months have been established, the benefits to reading to babies are less clear. This study looked at whether consistent reading to infants improves language development during the first year of life.

The researchers set up a simple reading activity to be completed daily. Families with newborns from a rural family medicine center were enrolled. Babies with a diagnosed medical condition that would affect their learning abilities were not included.

The families in the study were randomly split into two groups at their baby’s 2-week checkup. Both groups of families were given the same set of 20 books selected by a speech-language pathologist. Group A did not receive any instructions on what to do with the books. Group B was told to read at least one book a day to their baby.

A third group of families, Group C, were enrolled during the mother’s third trimester of pregnancy. At 34 weeks, they viewed a video on babies’ brain development and were also given the instructions to read at least one book a day to their baby. 

All the parents had logbooks to record how many books they read.

What did the study find about language development in babies?

In order to look at language outcomes, the babies were assessed at ages 9 and 12 months by a speech therapist who used the Receptive-Expressive Emergent Language Test- 3rd Edition (REEL-3). This assessment looks at a child’s receptive language (the words they understand), expressive language (how they communicate), and overall core language scores.

The findings showed that in families who always read at least seven books a week to their baby, the babies had higher receptive, expressive, and combined language scores at 9 months of age. This was compared to families who sometimes read fewer than seven books per week. The differences between the groups increased when the babies were 12 months old.

In families who always read at least seven books a week to their baby, the babies had higher receptive, expressive, and combined language scores.

In addition, parents who were given the instructions to read one book a day were found to be more likely to read daily to their infant.

Limitations of the study

This study can only conclude that there is a correlation between regularly reading with your baby and improved language. It does not show that frequent reading was the cause of the higher language scores. There could be other factors contributing to the babies’ language development.

Also, the number of families in the study was small. There were 16 to 18 families in each group. More research is needed among larger groups. 

What does this study mean for parents and caregivers?

The takeaway? Reading together is a positive thing for caregivers to do with their children, no matter what age they are. This habit is likely to contribute to positive language growth in babies. And the more you can read together, the better.

There are lots of simple things you can do while reading to help with your child’s language development. Let’s take a look.

7 tips for reading books with your baby and toddler

Here are 7 easy reading techniques to try with babies and toddlers:

1 Sit face-to-face

Instead of placing your baby in your lap, let them sit face-to-face with you. This could be in a baby seat, sitting on the floor or bed if they’re able, or simply lying on the floor. This way they can see your facial expressions and watch your mouth form the words. 

2 Go off script

Don’t feel like you have to read the exact words on the page. Babies benefit from you pausing to repeat words or phrases, talking about colors, commenting on the pictures, and even repeating speech sounds, animal sounds, or the sounds of cars and trains. When you’re emphasizing sounds, try to have your baby watch you do it.

3 Read the same books often

You don’t need a library of hundreds of books for your baby. Infants actually benefit from hearing the same books read over and over! This helps them learn vocabulary. Similarly, choose books that have repeating phrases, like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and many of the Dr. Seuss books. 

4 Get excited about the book

Your enthusiasm will help your baby get excited, too! You can do this by using fun and engaging voices and inflections. Don’t forget to change the voices up for different characters. Babies easily pick up on different tones in a person’s voice. This can make them more likely to listen to the words you’re saying. 

5 Point to and describe the pictures

As you read, pause to name what you see in the pictures. For example, if you see a dog running, you can pause, point to the picture, and say, “Dog! Dog! Dog is running!” As your baby gets closer to toddlerhood, they can begin pointing to items at your request. Try questions like, “Where is the cat?” or “Where is the train?” One day they’ll likely surprise you and point to the right picture!

6 Focus on different types of words

When you come across a new word in a book, take a moment to tell your child what it means. Make sure to focus on different types of words, too. Nouns are important; they help your child learn what people, places, and things are called. But don’t forget to use action words and descriptive words. You can talk about the “big mountain” or the “fast cheetah.” Even though your child likely won’t say their first word until sometime around 12 months old, they’re soaking up all the vocabulary you’re teaching them now. 

7 Make reading a routine

Families often have busy lives, and it can be easy to skip storytime. Try to pick a time of day where reading books is expected and planned. This could be after bathtime and before going to bed, or after getting dressed in the morning before heading out for the day. Whatever you choose, make sure it works for you and your family.

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