The Benefits of Reading to Your Baby During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Pediatrician’s View

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As I write this, the great majority of us, wherever we are, are homebound. Many are taking advantage of our time at home to get some household projects done. You might, for example, be going through your clothes closets, or your documents, or even your spices.

If you have a young child at home, it may surprise you to know that you have the power and skill to organize something very different—his brain. How? By reading to him!

This will become clearer as I describe a recent study done at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The researchers looked at children’s home reading environments by providing parents with a questionnaire. They then used magnetic resonance imaging (better known as MRI) to get pictures of kids’ brains. More specifically, they looked at the white matter—the part of the brain that carries messages from one place to another.

The investigators found a remarkable difference in the pictures. The children who were read to more often had white matter that was better developed and organized than those in non-reading households. It’s sort of like the difference in the electrical system in an old house—perhaps several renovations and repairs later, a tangle of wires—versus that in a new house.

That may all be well and good, but does a prettier picture translate to better child development? According to the researchers, apparently it does. They also tested their subjects on language and literacy (reading) skills and found that the children with the “organized” brains did better on those tests.

The Cincinnati Children’s study added to what we already know. There’s lots of research out there already showing that learning and thinking (“cognitive development” in medical speak) are helped—and, something particularly helpful in these times: kid stress is lessened—by early reading. But you might ask: how early is “early”?

It turns out that even reading to a young infant can be beneficial. While you and your little one might not be able to have a meaningful discussion of “War and Peace” anytime soon, even a 2-month-old enjoys the rhythm of speech. Thus, before you even start the reading, talk to your baby!

Although you can start reading to your baby even at a few days of age, most authorities do recommend that you definitely begin to do so by age 6 months. While a lot of us get our books on our screens these days, there are certain advantages to finding “old-fashioned” ones that a little one can pick up and hold. Yes, they’ll go in the mouth, also, but there are washable versions for this age group. And getting them accustomed to books has been shown to foster a lifelong love of reading.

What to Look For in a Book

It seems daunting to figure out what might be a good age-appropriate material for your baby or young child. Fear not: most experts agree that it’s not so much the content (within reason!) as the fact that you are reading to your child that’s important. Following are a few guidelines that might be helpful:

  • Early in infancy, books with few or even no words are fine. Babies respond early to brightly colored picture as well as faces. The important part here is talking and even singing to your little one—and it’s not too early to recite nursery rhymes!
  • By mid-infancy, a baby can hold a small book (and yes, this is the time that books go in the mouth). Board books, which are made of thicker material, can stand up to such activities. Books with “touch and feel” surfaces are popular now, and the “reader” (parent, sibling or caregiver) can talk about the pictures.
  • Later in infancy, choose books that have a few words per page (up to a sentence for a 12-month-old). Pictures of babies, animals and familiar objects are all great, and it’s helpful if pictures are labeled.
  • Toddlers (between ages 1 and 2) will enjoy more complex images or scenes (say, a picture of a room and what’s in it). You can choose books with simple sentences, and don’t forget how much toddlers love rhymes!

From 2 to 3 years, you can choose books (paperback now) with more of a plot line, ask simple questions, and even identify letters. And let your little one turn the pages. At this point, if she starts to imitate reading, it’s a good bet you’ve produced a reader! Encourage that behavior by giving her books to look at on her own, even if she just “pretends” to read.

It’s not important to read a different book at every session. Young kids love routines, and may end up having a favorite book that you’ll read many nights—possibly in a row. Each reading is a new learning experience, and it all contributes to a love of reading.

If it’s still hard to think about picking reading activities for your child, you may want to seek out one of the thousands of pediatricians that participate in the “Reach Out and Read” program, a federally funded venture that provides free, age-appropriate books. Participating providers are also trained in guiding you on how best to include your child in a reading activity.

These are not easy times, and many routine provider appointments are on hold at this writing. Chances are, however, that you might have a little more time to read to your child. While we all regroup and re-organize as a result of recent events, realize that you can help your child get organized from the inside—and, at the same time, set the stage for better learning going forward.

Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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