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Published on October 02, 2015

Reading is good for the brain, even for babiesReading is good for the brain, even for babies

I absolutely love to read, myself, and reading to my children was one of my favorite activities when they were young. In addition to visiting the library, I always bought my children their own books and still have many of their favorites which I now share with my grandchildren. It thrilled me to learn that local pediatricians give books away at well baby visits. – Laurie Higgins

Most people know that reading is important for children, but new research published in the journal Pediatrics shows that even babies benefit greatly by being introduced to books early in life.

Past studies have focused positively on the links between growing up with books and later language development and school success. The new study focuses on why books actually matter to brain development.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers studied the brain activity of 3- to 5-year-olds as they listened to stories – without seeing any pictures to go along with them.

They discovered significantly greater brain activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls multi-sensory integration. The children were actually integrating sound into visual images in their brains.

A little over a year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending that all primary care pediatricians should encourage literacy promotion beginning at birth.

The statement said that regularly reading to young children stimulates brain development, strengthens the parent/child bond, and builds language, literacy and social-emotional skills.

At least two pediatric practices on the Cape were way ahead of that recommendation. Doctors at both Briarpatch Pediatrics and Seaside Pediatrics have been participating in the Boston-based literacy program, Reach Out and Read, since 2007.

“We gave out 2,251 books in the past year,” says Leif Norenberg, MD, at Briarpatch Pediatrics. “It’s to promote school readiness and early literacy skills but it is also just a great mom/baby, dad/baby, and grandma/baby time of bonding.”

Both offices give parents a free age-appropriate book at every well visit from the time their babies are 6 months old and up to age 5. The offices have also replaced toys in the waiting room with books to further promote reading.

“Reach Out and Read is a fabulous program,” says Kathryn Rudman, MD, at Seaside Pediatrics. “The kids look forward to the books so much and it promotes early literacy so well. Some of the families that have two languages spoken at home can choose if they want a book in English or Spanish. Sometimes English-speaking families will choose Spanish books.”

In support of the initiative, Seaside Pediatrics has given away more than 6,000 books since they began the program on June 1, 2007.

Six months old might seem a little young for reading, but Dr. Rudman says it’s fine even if the babies simply chew on the board books at first. In fact, it’s totally normal.

“That is how they start to learn to love books,” she says. “You don’t have to expect 1-year-olds to sit still for a whole book. They may only sit for two or three pages. You just have to be patient and keep at it.”

The payoff is worth it, the doctors say. When young children read picture books with their parents, they help turn the pages, point to things and are actively involved in the process. Even books without pictures are beneficial because listening to stories activates a part of the brain that helps toddlers create visual images.

For example, if you read the sentence “the dog chased the ball,” a child has to imagine both the dog and the ball and then put the two together to form the action in the sentence. Television does not promote the same kind of learning because it passively feeds the information to children without them having to make the association on their own.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time under 2,” says Dr. Norenberg. “There are studies that show even if there’s a TV on in the background of a room, kids are looking up at it and are distracted by it. That’s not good for the kids.”

Being read a book may also help children learn language better than regular conversation. A study published in the journal Psychological Science indicated that high-quality picture books contain more varied language and word types than the typical parent/child conversation.

That means children who are read to hear more words and at the same time their brains get practice visualizing the words.

So grab a book and cuddle up with your child, grandchild, niece or nephew. You’ll both be glad you did.