National Journal

Next time your little one begs to hear Goodnight Moon for the umpteenth time, just give in.

Her brain will thank you.

You've heard the standard "read to your baby" refrain. That it'll help her learn to talk and get ready for preschool. Now, research published in Pediatrics shows, for the first time, the quantifiable effects that parent-child reading have on a baby's brain. It turns out that preschoolers exposed to more story time at home show more activity on the left side of the brain, which supports things such as language processing and narrative comprehension.

The kids with high reading exposure at home had high brain activity on the left-sided parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, which is part of the brain that supports semantic language processing.

In other words, there's officially scientific proof to back up what behavioral specialists have been saying for years.

For the study, the researchers collected fMRI brain scans of 3-to-5-year-olds listening to a story and asked the kids' parents about the amount of story time happening at home. The kids who were read to frequently at home had a lot of brain activity in the part of the brain that supports what is known as semantic language processing, basically how kids gain an understanding of the words and phrases they hear.

How can you use this science at home? Here are four ways.

1. Expose babies to more words

Reading helps toddlers gain a bigger, more complex vocabulary. As the study notes, books "provide a broader, more grammatically correct vocabulary and range of subject matter than everyday conversation, especially in low-socioeconomic-status households." While talking to your toddler is incredibly important, reading has unique benefits.

2. Read to children early and often

Reading to kids helps with "biological embedding." That's a wonky term for what happens to kids' brains during early childhood, depending on the type of stimulation they receive. As the study points out, learning to read is a complex process that involves "language, visual, and association brain networks." The prime time for developing those networks is in the first few years, meaning that if a kid has a solid foundation early on, he'll have a much easier, much more enjoyable time learning to read than a kid who doesn't have access to books.

3. Immerse your baby in language

Babies have incredibly malleable, adaptive brains. That changes as kids age. A kid who reads well is more likely to do well in school. Critically, the kids who start school without the scaffolding that helps them learn to read rarely make up lost time.

4. Play with their imagination

Babies who are read to at home are better able to visualize what is happening when they hear a story. The study's authors infer that children who are better able to use the left-brain circuits that appear to be active when children hear stories might be better at transitioning from picture books to text-only stories later on. They're better at using their imaginations to paint a mental picture.

So if you're ready to chuck Goodnight Moon out the window, hold off. Your baby's brain is growing.

This story is part of our Next America: Early Childhood project, which is supported by grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

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