Why do we read to babies? Reasons and research behind the “shoulds”

Reading to babies is one of those things that everyone seems to know we are supposed to do, but the reasons are hazy. Are we reading to kids to teach them to talk? To educate them on animal sounds? Or just because books are like vegetables, inherently good for us with no questions asked?

When I decided to publish a baby Shakespeare book, I needed to find out the specifics. Below are the reasons why reading to your little one will help him or her down the road—and a few tips on the best way to do it.

Reading aloud exposes kids to more words. Hearing more and different words early in life has been proven to help with literacy, vocabulary, and speech later on. And books provide the complex and unfamiliar vocabulary that speech won’t.

“Study after study has shown that the number of words babies hear in their earliest years impacts literacy, vocabulary, and reading comprehension for years to come.” The New Republic, "Does it matter what you read to your baby?," Alice Robb, June 24, 2014
"The language in books is very rich, and in books there are complete sentences. In books, newspapers, and magazines, the language is more complicated, more sophisticated. A child who hears more sophisticated words has a giant advantage over a child who hasn't heard those words.” Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (quoted in The Huffington Post, “5 Hidden Benefits Of Reading For Kids (And Their Parents!),” Sept. 30, 2013
“Aside from introducing children to a love of literature and storytelling, reading exposes them to written language, which differs from the spoken word.” The Washington Post, Deb Werrlein, “Why I read aloud with my teens,” Deb Werrlein, June 2, 2015. 

Hearing you read speeds up and eases the process of learning to talk and read.

“There have been a good number of studies that have [found] empirical evidence that reading to kids does have an impact on things such as literacy and oral language readiness.” Dr. Thomas DeWitt, director of the division of general and community pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Quoted in The Huffington Post, "Science proves reading to kids really does change their brains," Catherine Pearson, August 6, 2015

Imagining helps them learn to visualize.

“Now there is evidence that reading to young children is in fact associated with differences in brain activity supporting early reading skills…Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child ‘see the story’ beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination." AAP News, “MRI shows association between reading to young children and brain activity,” Carla Kemp, April 2015

Kids learn emotional coping skills through story.  

“Taking the time to read with our children will not only help their reading skills, comprehension and vocabulary, but it will strengthen their emotional IQ as well.” The Washington Post,  “Tough times out there? Here’s why reading with your kids is more important now than ever,” Amy Joyce, August 10, 2016

Cuddling while you read helps them learn to love books.

The purpose is, always, to enjoy. There is a strong connection in the brain between enjoying and learning. When babies enjoy books together with their parents, they grow up loving books because some of the love they feel for their parents crosses over to those first books, and then books in general.” Reach Out and Read, “The First Time You Read to Your Baby,” Dr. Robert Needlman, July 19, 2016

Sitting still to see what happens next helps develop executive function.

“…[T]raining and developing ‘executive function’ (a set of processes that govern behavior regulation, self-control, and persistence) can improve your kid’s reading performance before they ever set foot in a kindergarten.” Fatherly, "This is your kid's brain on A, B, C," Steve Schiff, August 4, 2016

Repetition helps them learn and gain a feeling of control.

“[F]or a young kid, knowing what comes next is the story is ‘an exhilarating experience.'” The New Republic, "Does it matter what you read to your baby?," Alice Robb, June 24, 2014
"[I]t’s okay to read the same book over and over again if that’s what your child wants! Repetition helps children learn new concepts and become familiar with words.” Too Small to Fail, "Promoting early literacy at home," August 4, 2016. 

When should you start?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting with daily reading when your child is born. Kids begin forming associations the moment they are out in the world. And from a practical perspective, it’s much easier to keep up a habit than it is to remember to start one later on.

Most children seem to start showing interest in books at around six months old, and they have another spike in interest at about nine months. But if your child is older and you’re not reading to him or her yet, it’s definitely not too late! Kids benefit from being read aloud to right up into their teens.  

Is there any special way to read to kids?

The reading is much more important than the technique. But here are some tips:

“Children benefit most from reading aloud when they are actively engaged. Your child loves the feeling of being close to you, so cuddle up as you begin the story. Along the way, ask open-ended questions and encourage your child to describe the pictures he sees. After reading a new word, explain to him what the word means in a clear and simple way. You can also let him hold the book and help turn the pages." Too Small to Fail, "Promoting early literacy at home," August 4, 2016. 
Vary the tone of your voice with different characters in the stories, sing nursery rhymes, make funny faces, do whatever special effects you can to stimulate your baby's interest.” Reading Rockets, "25 activities for reading and writing fun," Kameenui, E. J., & Simmons, D. C. May, 1997
Find books that you love, and your baby will love them too. And don't worry: there is no special technique for reading to babies. If you follow your heart and let joy be your guide, you will do it perfectly every time.” Reach Out and Read, “The First Time You Read to Your Baby,” Dr. Robert Needlman, July 19, 2016