Books, Brain and Babyhood: The Role of Reading in the First Two Years (Part I)

Child Development

By Chinar Som

Reading aloud to children in the first two years of childhood and sharing picture books with them is a relatively recent practice. This is largely seen as an urban parenting practice amplified by the millennials. For a long time, it was considered absurd and silly to read to young ones who hadn’t developed adequate comprehension and language. However, with awareness and access to the growing body of knowledge in Child development indicating that reading has multifold benefits in the first two years as well; more and more new parents are taking to books for their babies.

How do books and reading help babies and infants?

  • By developing a healthy bond- It cannot be emphasized enough that, positive parent-child interactions form the basis for future healthy bonds and a sense of security. When a parent or a caregiver snuggles up with the infant with a book, it becomes an act of love and bonding. The child has the parent’s full attention and this process helps them to feel safe and develop an emotional connection with the adult.
  • By developing the brain- Early childhood is a phase of rapid brain development. Hence adequate stimuli are crucial during the early years. Reading as an activity ensures that cognitive, language and socio-emotional development is given a boost.

A study found that children whose parents spoke more to them in babyhood scored higher in standard tests at the age of 3 as compared to those who had fewer verbal interactions.

Language and Cognitive development are interlinked. Reading to babies not only develops language skills but also cognitive skills like attention, memory, organizing information, following instructions etc. Even when a baby is simply appearing to play with a picture book, they are trying to make sense of things by touching, seeing, putting the book in their mouth.

It is more beneficial when the book is used for verbal interaction. The voice modulation and different pitches used for reading exposes the baby to associated feelings and emotions as well. This association would otherwise not take place with passive exposure to stimuli. Eg: listening to children’s audio or exploring a book by self.

  • By developing future literacy skills- Though babies learn to talk much later, the exposure to sounds, words, phrases in reading helps develop vocabulary and future literacy skills. It introduces them to the different elements of language.

Children who were read to from birth were found to have advanced language and communication skills by the time they started pre-school. Hence this also helped in school success.

While babies may still be too young to understand stories, they are able to hear the rhythm of speech and their developing brain starts identifying patterns. They will eventually attempt to copy the sounds as an initial step in language development.

A study at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island, found that 18- to 24-month-olds whose parents said they had been reading to them regularly since the age of 6 months, were able to say and understand more words than those whose parents hadn't.

  • By establishing a routine- Babies are constantly trying to make sense of the outside world which differs vastly from the in-utero environment. Hence establishing of routines helps them cope by letting them know what to expect. If parents make it a habit of reading during particular times. It brings them a sense of comfort.

A mother shares, she went back to her office job when her child became a toddler. Till then she used to show her baby high contrast picture books and read simple stories at least 3-4 times a day. When she resumed her job, she could retain only the evening schedule of reading to her toddler. The child came to associate it as- ‘time with mummy’ and happily engaged in it and afterwards fell asleep with ease. What helped here was continuation of the routine even though the frequency was reduced.

Remember, the intention is to bond with the baby while giving them stimuli and opportunities to develop their language, communication skills and brain functioning. It is not necessary to buy loads of colourful books. You can tell a story with any high contrast picture available to you. Black and white picture cards work well too.

Make story-telling, reading, reciting rhymes, singing songs a fun part of interacting with your baby. It is an enriching experience whose benefits will be reaped over time.

"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore, a duty. It should be offered as a gift." Kate DiCamillo (Award winning author of children’s fiction)

About the author-

Chinar Som has Post Graduate degrees in Special Education and Human Development, with over 16 years of experience. She has taught from High school to Post-Graduate University students in India. She is an expert on a wide range of educational and parenting topics. A polyglot with a passion for writing. She practices a holistic healing lifestyle.

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