By Lisa Scott, University of Florida
(THE CONVERSATION) - Parents often receive books at paediatric checkups via programmes like Reach Out and Read and hear from a variety of health professionals and educators that reading to their kids is critical for supporting development.
The pro-reading message is getting through to parents, who recognise that it's an important habit. A summary report by Child Trends, for instance, suggests 55 per cent of three- to five-year-old children were read to every day in 2007. According to the US Department of Education, 83 per cent of three- to five-year-old children were read to three or more times per week by a family member in 2012.
What this ever-present advice to read with infants doesn't necessarily make clear, though, is that what's on the pages may be just as important as the book-reading experience itself. Are all books created equal when it comes to early shared-book reading? Does it matter what you pick to read? And are the best books for babies different than the best books for toddlers?
In order to guide parents on how to create a high-quality book-reading experience for their infants, my psychology research lab has conducted a series of baby learning studies. One of our goals is to better understand the extent to which shared book reading is important for brain and behavioural development.
What's on baby's bookshelf
Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development.
Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions - the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.
Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they'd spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their four-year-old children.
This important finding is one of the first to measure the benefit of shared book reading starting early in infancy. But there's still more to figure out about whether some books might naturally lead to higher-quality interactions and increased learning.
Babies and books in the lab
In our investigations, my colleagues and I followed infants across the second six months of life. We've found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalise what they learn to new situations and show more specialised brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood.
Our most recent addition to this series of studies was funded by the National Science Foundation and just published in the journal Child Development.
Our findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.
Tailoring book picks for maximum effect
So what do our results from the lab mean for parents who want to maximise the benefits of storytime?
Not all books are created equal. The books that parents should read to six- and nine-month-olds will likely be different than those they read to two-year-olds, which will likely be different than those appropriate for four-year-olds who are getting ready to read on their own. In other words, to reap the benefits of shared book reading during infancy, we need to be reading our little ones the right books at the right time.
For infants, finding books that name different characters may lead to higher-quality shared book reading experiences and result in the learning and brain development benefits we find in our studies. All infants are unique, so parents should try to find books that interest their baby.
My own daughter loved the "Pat the Bunny" books, as well as stories about animals, like "Dear Zoo." If names weren't in the book, we simply made them up.
It's possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read. Talk to your babies early and often to guide them through their amazing new world - and let storytime help.