Research has repeatedly shown that reading to babies and young children can boost vocabulary, promote early learning, and instill a lifelong love of reading. As anyone who’s ever tried to read to a squirming, babbling baby knows, though, infants aren’t always the most receptive audience. A new study offers hope to parents overwhelmed by trying to read to their babies, suggesting that at a young age, talking to your child offers even greater benefits than reading.
The Benefits of Talking and Reading to Children
The study, published in Child Language Teaching and Therapy, pulled data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, which provided data from 7,845 babies. Researchers looked at data for 9-month-olds, evaluating how frequently parents spoke with and read to their children. The study’s authors controlled for variables that could affect child development, such as breastfeeding, maternal education, gestational age, care from non-parents, and interactions with siblings.
Unsurprisingly, researchers found that reading to babies had a positive effect on problem-solving and communication skills. Showing children pictures, as many parents do when they read to their babies, improved communication skills, but not problem-solving abilities. Absentmindedly talking to children throughout the day, though, yielded more positive results than either reading or showing pictures, significantly boosting babies’ problem-solving and communication skills.
How to Talk to Your Baby
Since babies aren’t yet ready to respond to their parents’ words, it’s up to parents to figure out how best to communicate with their babies, leaving some parents confused about the ideal approach. The study showed that absent-minded communication, rather than the drilling of specific words, offered robust benefits, so parents should take heart that talking to their babies doesn’t have to be cumbersome. If you want to test this approach out yourself, try some of the following strategies:
- Talk to your baby like you would talk to a friend, telling him or her what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, or what you’re thinking.
- Ask your baby questions about your activities together—“What color is that?” “Who are we going to see?” Though your child can’t yet respond, this gets him or her used to hearing conversations.
- Narrate your activities for your child. Try telling him or her the parts of his or her body, talking about what you’re doing when you dress or bathe your child, or telling your child what you’re about to do. Try “Now we’re going to see grandma,” “I’m putting on your shoes,” or “Look at that yellow bird!”
Murray, A., & Egan, S. M. (2014). Does reading to infants benefit their cognitive development at 9-months-old? An investigation using a large birth cohort survey. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 30(3), 303-315. doi:10.1177/0265659013513813
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