Brain study suggests the type of book you read to your baby is important

Parents often receive books at pediatric checkups and hear from a collection 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 recognize that it’s an essential habit. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 83 % of 3-to-5-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 children doesn’t necessarily make clear, though, is that what’s on the pages may be just as essential as the book-reading experience itself.

Are all books created equal when it appears to early shared-book reading? Does it matter what you pick to read? And are the best books for babies various from the best books for toddlers?

To guide parents on how to make a high-quality book-reading experience for their infants, my psychology research lab has attended a series of baby learning studies. One of our goals is to better understand the duration to which shared book-reading is essential for brain and behavioral development.

What’s on baby’s bookshelf

Researchers look clear benefits of shared book-reading for child development. Shared book-reading with young children is good for language and emotional development, incrementing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development.

Shared book-reading also probably appreciates 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 provides infants and parents a persistent daily time to clasp.

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 advantages in their 4-year-old children.

This essential finding is one of the first to measure the advantage of shared book-reading starting early in infancy. But there’s still more to figure out about whether some books might generally lead to higher-quality interactions and incremented learning.

Babies and books in the lab

In our investigations, my friends 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 personally named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each picture in the book. Early learning in infancy was also combined with advantages four years later.

Our most recent addition to this series of studies, funded by the National Science Foundation, was just published in the journal Child Development.

Here’s what we did:

First, we brought 6-month-old infants into our lab, where we could see how much debate they paid to story characters they’d never seen before. We utilized electroencephalography (EEG) to measure their brain responses. Infants wear a caplike net of 128 sensors that let us record the electricity naturally emitted from the scalp as the brain works. We measured these neural responses while infants looked at and paid attention to images on a computer screen. These brain measurements can tell us about what infants know and whether they can tell the difference between the characters we display them.

We also tracked the infants’ gaze using eye-tracking technology to see what components of the characters they targeted on and how long they paid attention.

The data we gathered at this first visit to our lab served as a baseline. We wanted to compare their initial measurements with future measurements we’d take, after we sent them home with storybooks featuring these same characters.

We divided up our enlists into three groups. One group of parents read their infants storybooks that accommodated six individually named characters that they’d never seen before. Another group was given the same storybooks, but instead of individually naming the characters, a generic and made-up label was utilized to refer to all the characters (such as “Hitchel”). Finally, we had a third comparison group of infants whose parents didn’t read them anything special for the study.

After three months passed, the families returned to our lab so we could again measure the infants’ attention to our storybook characters. It turned out that only those who received books with individually labeled characters displayed enhanced attention compared to their earlier visit. And the brain activity of babies who learned personal labels also showed that they could distinguish between various individual characters. We didn’t see these effects for infants in the comparison group or for infants who received books with generic labels.

These findings advise 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 maximize the advantages of story time?

Not all books are created equal. The books that parents should read to 6- and 9-month-olds will possibly be different from those they read to 2-year-olds, which will possibly be different from those applicable for 4-year-olds who are getting ready to read on their own. In other words, to reap the advantages 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 advantages 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, such as “Dear Zoo.” If names weren’t in the book, we simply made them up.

It’s probable that books that include named characters easily increment the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is essential 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 assist.

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