Some parents look to TV programs, apps and flashcards to jump-start their child’s language or give him a leg up in preschool. Others have a more laid back approach, reasoning that babies are too young for books and language will unfold on its own. Books, however, are special. I urge everyone to turn off the TV and iPad, put down the flashcards and go old school on this one.
Babies Learn Through Interaction
When pediatricians recommend reading to children starting in infancy, we aren’t aiming to create prodigies who head off to college at age 12. We are trying to foster healthy language development. Babies learn to talk by interacting one on one with the people they love. Even well-meaning TV is mostly a wall of sound to a baby, but quiet time in a lap, a parent’s gentle touch and shared focus on a book all prime a baby to pay attention to speech.  The rhymes and sing-song rhythms of children’s stories further promote language development, and even the limited words in little board books enrich a child’s vocabulary and syntax. Beyond the text, talking about the pages is such a powerful tool that even illiterate parents can nurture their children’s vocabulary by looking at books with them. 
Building Scaffolding for Literacy
Story time builds sturdy scaffolding for literacy. Babies explore books on their own terms, of course. A 4-month-old will usually try to eat the pages (a good source of fiber, one of my mentors taught me), but that is how 4-month-olds make sense of their world. There is a lot to figure out about books, too: They have pages, a top and a bottom, a front and a back, a beginning and an end. They contain patterns: Words go with certain pictures and stories with certain books. Later on, sounds go with certain letters.  A person usually utters his first words around age 1, but we would never wait until a baby approached his first birthday to begin speakingto him. Likewise, we shouldn’t wait until children are in preschool to expose them to written language.
Early exposure to books is linked to improved vocabulary and verbal fluency, which in turn predict higher educational achievement, better health and lower poverty rates in adulthood.  That’s impressive stuff. For most of us, though, reading with a baby is its own reward. Nothing is cuter than a 6-month-old, all pudgy cheeks and furrowed brow, concentrating on “Moo, baa, la la la!,” or a 9-month old licking her left index finger and turning the page with her right. In the moody chaos of the toddler years, it’s comforting for both parents and children to have a routine story time to enjoy each other’s company and unwind at the end of the day.
Reading to your baby is a precious gift. It fosters bonding, language and a love of books. Make time for it every day. The rewards are priceless.
Leave a comment! Share books your baby enjoys … do you notice your baby looking forward to story time?
Dr. Condron is a pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic – Fort Bend Medical and Diagnostic Center whose clinical interests include obesity, nutrition, allergies, asthma, childhood development, literacy, infectious diseases and preventive medicine.
 Christakis, DA, Gilkerson, J, Richards, JA et al. Audible television and decreased adult words, infant vocalizations, and conversational turns: a population based study. Arch Pedistr Adolesc Med.2009;163(6):554-558.
 McConnell, G. Reading for health. AAP News.November 1, 2005; 26(11): 13-17.
 Council on early childhood. Literacy promotion: an essential component of primary care pediatric practice.Pediatrics. 2014; 134(404-409).