A mother reads to her 13-month-old son. [GateHouse Media Services/File]
Lisa S. Scott: Maximize the benefits of story time for babies
Parents often receive books at pediatric checkups via programs 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 recognize that it’s an important habit.
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. 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 behavioral development.
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.
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 4-year-old children.
In our investigations, my colleagues and I have 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, 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 image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood.
In our most recent study, we brought 6-month-old infants into our lab, where we could see how much attention they paid to story characters they’d never seen before. We used electroencephalography to measure their brain responses. We also tracked the infants’ gaze using eye-tracking technology to see what parts of the characters they focused on and how long they paid attention.
We divided up our volunteers into three groups. One group of parents read their infants storybooks that contained six individually named characters that they’d never seen before. Another group were given the same storybooks but instead of individually naming the characters, a generic and made-up label was used 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 showed enhanced attention compared to their earlier visit. And the brain activity of babies who learned individual labels also showed that they could distinguish between different individual characters. We didn’t see these effects for infants in either the comparison group or for infants who received books with generic labels.
So what do our results from the lab mean for parents who want to maximize the benefits of story time?
Not all books are created equal. The books that parents should read to 6- and 9-month-olds will likely be different than those they read to 2-year-olds or 4-year-olds. 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. 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 story time help.
Lisa S. Scott is an associate professor in psychology at the University of Florida. A version of this article was originally published on The Conversation, https://theconversation.com, an independent online publication bringing research from academia to the public.
Article originally found on gainesville.com/