Or, 6 fabulous reasons to read to your baby from birth
Updated 4 January 2023
Reading to babies is great fun and we know it’s important for their development but many of us are a bit hazy on why it’s important to read aloud to our little ones. And I’m often asked at what age parents should begin reading aloud. Surely babies don’t understand what we’re reading so why would we do it?
So why exactly does reading aloud matter for babies and when should we begin reading aloud?
The short answer is that reading aloud helps stimulate the development of babies’ brains and promotes bonding between parents and their little one.
- lays the foundations for the development of a rich vocabulary;
- helps develop early communication skills;
- fosters a love of reading and books;
- helps stimulate the development of phonological awareness – an awareness of how language works;
It might seem as if these are all things that will happen later in a baby’s life but research shows that they start developing from birth. Even though a newborn baby can’t yet speak, she is learning all about language from the day she’s born. And, if you start reading aloud to your baby from her earliest days, you will probably see signs of these important skills developing more quickly than you might have expected.
Let’s look into these benefits a little more closely.
1. Reading aloud enhances brain development
Recent developments in neuroscience have shown that reading aloud to our small humans strengthens the synapses in their brains which supports learning and other cognitive and emotional functions.
These effects are noticeable from birth when parents begin reading aloud from their child’s earliest days so it makes sense that we should begin reading aloud to our little ones as early as possible.
So how does this all work?
The human brain processes information by forming networks of specialised nerve cells called neurons. Messages are passed between neurons at connections called synapses. At birth a baby’s brain already has all of the neurons it will ever have.
The brain doubles in size in the first year of life and synapses are formed at a faster rate during these years than at any other time.
Synapses are strengthened by repeated use. The baby’s senses report to the brain about what she sees, hears, feels, smells and tastes in her environment and this input stimulates neural activity, strengthening synapses.
If there’s little input because, for example, a baby is neglected and rarely spoken to or cuddled, there will be less neural activity and the baby’s brain will not develop in a healthy, normal way. Because the synapses are being used only rarely, they will remain weak and more likely to be eliminated in the pruning process which is a normal part of brain development.
Speech sounds stimulate activity in language-related brain regions and these regions of the brain are stimulated when you read to your baby. The more speech – and the more different kinds of speech – your baby hears, the more the synapses between the neurons in that area will be activated and those synapses will become stronger and more permanent.
Stronger synapses make the networks that support learning, memory, and other cognitive abilities more efficient and more connected.
When you read to your baby, the synapses in the areas of the brain related to language become stronger and more efficient which in turn will make your baby’s brain stronger and more efficient at learning.
2. Reading to your baby promotes bonding
When you read to your newborn baby, your little one’s brain responds to the pleasurable, reassuring sound of your voice and to the touch of your body by causing a hormone called oxytocin to be released into her bloodstream via the pituitary gland.
Oxytocin is the neuro-chemical that makes us feel happy and loved. It’s released during interactions between mothers and their babies, during positive interactions between adults and even during positive interactions between humans and animals.
Until recently, the fact that oxytocin is released during everyday interactions such a touching, eye contact and smiling has tended to be overlooked or even forgotten but researchers are becoming increasingly interested in this biological system because it has been shown to promote bonding, healthy care-giving and synchrony between parents and their baby.
When you read to your baby, her body produces oxytocin which makes her feel safe, loved, happy and calm.
This is pretty amazing on its own but there’s more.
Oxytocin also contributes to our ability to handle stress and even to our on-going physical health.
So reading to little ones helps ensure they feel loved, happy and safe and improves their chances of being healthy and able to handle stress as they grow.
3. Reading to babies helps them understand how language works
Babies begin to tune in to the sound of spoken language from birth. At birth, a baby knows her mother’s and father’s voices and may be able to recognise the sounds of stories her parents read to her while she was still in the womb.
But our voices take on a different rhythm and cadence when we read aloud and this provides a richer experience of language to the baby’s rapidly-developing brain. Books often involve different patterns of speech and words that are different from the ones the baby hears around him in everyday speech and these provide added stimulation for the neural activity that’s already taking place in the brain.
The result of all this added brain activity is that the baby is developing an awareness and understanding of the sound structure of the language she will later speak. This awareness is called ‘phonological awareness’.
You can’t see this process happening, of course, and you won’t know it’s happening until your child begins to talk but reading to your baby is known to be one of the best ways to stimulate the development of phonological awareness.
Why does phonological awareness matter?
Phonological awareness matters because it’s an important and reliable predictor of a child’s later reading ability.
In fact, we now have decades of research which shows that children who have problems learning to read at school usually have poorly-developed phonological awareness. On the other hand, children whose phonological skills are well-developed during the pre-school years often learn to read quickly and easily.
So reading aloud to your baby helps him develop important pre-reading skills, even before he can talk.
4. Reading to babies builds a rich vocabulary
You might be surprised at how quickly your tiny baby learns new words.
Even if he can’t actually say them yet, by the time your baby’s a few months old, you’ll be able to tell when he recognises familiar words.
Reading to your baby gives him the opportunity to hear new words and to hear words which aren’t necessarily part of the language he hears around him every day. He hears those words repeated when you read familiar books over and over again and also in the books themselves because the best books for babies often involve repetition.
Mem Fox’s A Particular Cow is a lovely example of the interesting use of words in a picture book. The word ‘particular’ isn’t used much in everyday speech and it’s not a word which is often used in books for babies and young children. But it’s used repeatedly and very effectively in this funny story and babies and young children love it.
And there’s more.
Remember the earlier stuff about how synapses work? The more words a baby hears and the greater the variety of words he hears, the stronger those synapses – which are the building blocks of the baby’s ability to learn – will be.
Repeatedly hearing new words and words used in interesting ways builds vocabulary and stimulates activity in the language-related regions of the brain, which in turn strengthens the synapses which support learning, memory and other cognitive abilities.
5. Reading to your baby helps develop his communication skills
Babies learn to communicate when caregivers tune in to their signals and respond in caring and appropriate ways.
These interactions are often referred to as ‘serve and return’ interactions and they’re important because they actually shape the architecture of the baby’s brain.
So what do these ‘serve and return’ interactions actually look like?
They can look like a baby babbling, gesturing or crying and mum or dad responding by making gentle eye contact, talking to the baby or offering a cuddle.
They can look like a parent asking their baby a question and the baby making eye contact and responding with a word, a smile or a gesture.
They can look like a parent reading to a baby, pausing to ask “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” or “where is Spot hiding?” and the baby babbling or pointing to the pages in response.
Reading to a baby provides lots of opportunities to enjoy these ‘serve and return’ interactions. They’re enjoyable for the baby so they cause the baby’s brain to release oxytocin and they also build and strengthen the neural connections in the baby’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills.
Yep. Neuroscience again.
6. Reading to babies fosters a love of books, stories and reading
This is the big one and it’s pretty self-explanatory.
When you read to your baby and ‘chat’ together about the book, he quickly learns to associate books and reading with feeling happy, safe and loved, via that jolt of oxytocin he experiences.
You snuggle and read, oxytocin is released into your baby’s bloodstream and the connection is made. This connection is reinforced every time you read aloud to your little one and, before you know it, you’re raising a reader.
So how does this look in practice? How will you know you’re raising a reader?
It will probably look like:
- your baby’s eyes lighting up when you pick up a book and say “let’s read a story”;
- your six-month-old trying to turn the pages as you read, pointing at the illustrations and even perhaps trying to say some of the words;
- your crawling baby making a bee-line for the basket of books you keep in his play space and sitting by himself to look at them;
- your one-year-old bringing you a book and pushing it towards you to ask you to read it;
- your two-year-old asking for a story and telling you which books he wants you to read (and which ones he doesn’t want to read today);
- your three-year-old reciting some of the pages of her favourite books and telling you that you “missed a page” or “that’s not how it goes” if you attempt to tamper with the text;
- your four-year-old saying “hey, cat-bat, they sound the same!”
- your five-year-old learning to read fairly easily and enjoying being able to read all by herself;
- your six-year-old writing pretty well for his age and enjoying writing his own stories
I could go on but I suspect you get the picture.
I watched this process happen with my own three children and with my five nephews and it’s a pretty magical experience. There’s also a lot of research around this. See the references below if you’d like to read more about it.
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Over to you
Do you read aloud to your baby?
Is there anything I’ve missed?
What do you think is the best thing about reading to your little one?
I’d love to hear what you think so drop me a line in the comments.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Parent-Child Reading and Story Time Promote Brain Development Prior to Kindergarten. Retrieved 10 September 2019 from: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/Parent-Child-Reading-and-Story-Time-Promote-Brain-Development-Prior-to-Kindergarten.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017). Reading with children starting in infancy gives lasting literacy boost. Retrieved 10 September 2019 from: https://www.aappublications.org/news/2017/05/04/PASLiteracy050417
Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (n.d.). Serve and Return. Retrieved 18 September 2019 from: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/
Szymanska, M; Schneider, M; Chateau-Smith, C; Nezelof, S; & Vulliez-Coady, L. (2017). Psychophysiological effects of oxytocin on parent-child interactions: A literature review on oxytocin and parent-child interactions. Retrieved 18 September 2019 from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pcn.12544
Uvnäs-Moberg, K; Handlin, L; & Petersson, M. (2015). Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Retrieved 16 September 2019 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290532/
I’m Felicity - a parent to three young humans and a primary school teacher who loves books.
I’m passionate about helping parents discover the joy of reading to their little ones and I love helping you discover quality picture books to share with the babies and small humans in your lives.