The Riches of Reading to Babies

“The Reading Mother” is an old poem, and I’m not sure when I first heard it. But my favorite line comes to mind whenever I see a mom reading to her child: “Richer than I you will never be—I had a mother who read to me.” Certainly, by that measure, I’m a wealthy person, as are my children.

Reading to children is such a simple thing. Almost anyone can do it. It’s low cost. It’s low tech. Yet, many of us worry that in this  digital age full of tablets and smartphones that are often handed over to children, even babies, essential basics such as books and magazines are increasingly shunned.

Decades ago educators cited reading as the most fundamental skill children acquire, and they promoted the idea that reading aloud to children is critically important. Early childhood teachers can quickly spot the students who are read to daily, as they are already on their way to becoming good future readers.

And pediatricians are also speaking to the importance of reading to children—particularly in the first three years of their lives. In a policy announcement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is urging its physician members to prescribe daily read-aloud time for parents and children together. And they say this should start from infancy. Formally adding their voice to the voices of others, doctors will remind parents at office visits not to forget “the basics.” They’ll be telling parents that it’s critical to read, speak, and sing to children at the very beginning of their young lives, because that’s how they acquire vocabulary and other important pre-literacy skills that may determine later school success. 

Doctors might also talk to parents about how regular reading is essential to optimal physical development. Research shows that when children are read to, their brain cells are literally turned on. Existing links among brain cells are strengthened. New cells are formed.  Reading, as it turns out, is brain food! Maybe it’s even fair to say that no child is completely healthy if he or she has not held a book or heard a story.

In my experience, many parents and grandparents—even the wealthy and well educated—are surprised to hear the research and learn that it’s never too soon to read to babies. The AAP and others point out that low-income children are of particular concern.  Studies show that more affluent children hear millions more words spoken, read, or sung than do children from low-income homes. This “word gap” gives low-income children a clear academic disadvantage, which may be apparent as early as 18 months.  One easy way to close that word gap is exposing babies to books.

Until very recently, the national conversation about this issue has been mostly a low but persistent hum. Let’s hope that with the AAP and so many others joining in, it will now rise to the level of a clarion call: Let’s read to children. All of us. Every child. Every day. In infancy and throughout childhood—even beyond the stage when they are reading independently.

As the poet said so well long ago, mothers can make their children rich—simply by opening a book.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....