Why you should read to your newborn baby

When to start reading to your child? As early as possible, says the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mariana Bazo/Reuters
Newborn babies receive attention of nurses at Lima's maternity hospital in Peru.

When it comes to reading, it’s never too early to start. 

That’s according to new health guidance that encourages parents to begin reading to babies as young as newborns. 

In a policy statement released Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised pediatricians to encourage parents to read to their children starting in infancy. According to the AAP’s research, early exposure to language “has a profound influence on children’s learning through life.”

It turns out reading to one’s baby encourages word learning, literacy, and strong family relationships. 

But the organization isn’t stopping there. To bring the point home – literally – the AAP is working with two nonprofit organizations to hand out children’s books to parents who may not have the resources to buy them. 

The AAP is working with Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit literacy group, as well as Too Small to Fail, a project of the Clinton Foundation, to provide books for pediatricians to hand out to low-income families at office visits.

As the New York Times reported, it’s especially vital to get books into the hands of lower-income families.

“According to a federal government survey of children’s health, 60 percent of American children from families with incomes at least 400 percent of the federal poverty threshold – $95,400 for a family of four – are read to daily from birth to 5 years of age, compared with around a third of children from families living below the poverty line, $23,850 for a family of four,” the story read. 

As a result, children from poorer families fall behind in language skills as early as 18 months of age, according to a study published last year in Developmental Science. 

That gap grows even larger by the time a child is 2, with toddlers in low-income families lagging six months behind vocabulary and language processing skills compared to children in more affluent homes.

The organization is hoping its policy statement and book-giving campaign helps to close that gap.

As for exactly what to read to a newborn, infant, or tot, it turns out almost anything is good – even Shakespeare. Dr. Pamela High, who authored the policy paper, gave Time magazine a few tips on what to read to babies.

First, “it’s developmentally appropriate for children to chew on books,” as Time reported, so choose books that are safe for teething babies. Also, colorful illustrations will keep a child’s attention longer – but don’t expect most babies to be attentive for longer than 90 seconds at a time. Finally, parents should also enjoy the book they’re reading to their child, because “shared enjoyment” starts with “the parent’s enjoyment.” 

With that, Dr. High recommends just about any book for babies – from Shakespeare’s Sonnets to Lydia Davis’s short story collection “Can’t & Won’t” to tactile picture book “Farm,” by James Brown, and “Toot!” by Leslie Patricelli, a book about – you guessed it – farts.

Ah, the wide-ranging canon of babes.  

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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