Thirty Million Ways to Say I Love You

Why are today’s pediatricians talking about the importance of reading to your infant and child?

The fact is that doctors have learned an incredible amount about early brain development over the past decade, and researchers now know that the way parents interact with their children from birth through five years old is a critical factor in how well a child will ultimately learn in school.

Research shows that infants and toddlers who had regular, one on one time to engage with their parents— talking, reading, singing – entered school with up to a 30 million word advantage compared to those whose parents did not engage this way on a daily basis. That means the word-advantaged children had heard, on average, 30 million more words than their disadvantaged classmates had heard in those years of early development. This “word gap” as it is called turns out to be a predictor of how well children will do in school.

Studies showed that all children, both the word-rich and the word-poor, heard about the same number of “business” words like “its time to eat”, “brush your teeth,” or “stop hitting your brother with that spoon.” What we are talking about for brain development is the richer interactions of singing a lullaby, exchanging facial expressions, reading a book.

Its also important to point out that the primary language is not critical . Even if you only speak Spanish, and your child will be learning in an English-speaking environment, those 30 million Spanish interactive words will have promoted his brain development as well.

Another important message from the research is that this is not simply an socioeconomic issue. While only 30% of poorer children under the age of five are read to daily, the rate is only 60% of economically advantaged children. There is plenty of room for improvement across the spectrum. What are the reasons for this? They vary from family to family, but we know that some of the obstacles that all families face today include busy schedules and an intrusion of electronics into every facet of our lives. We owe it to our families to stop, take a breath, and carve out time every day for one of the greatest gifts parents can offer their child: their full attention.

Awareness of the science is also an issue. Many parents are surprised to hear that reading their newborn a book, and all the eye contact and cuddling and facial cues that go along with it, can have a profound impact on the infant’s brain structure, and how well that child will learn later in life. They are skeptical that a rambunctious toddler can learn to participate in a distraction-free bedtime ritual of a book or a lullaby. They are worried that getting everyone fed, dressed and out the door is a much more pressing need than talking about the shape of a cloud. Pediatricians want to help parents turn those ideas around. it will be healthier for parents and children alike.

So parents, grandparents, caregivers – read, talk and sing to your infant or child. If you haven’t been making it a part of your daily lives, start today. Get a library card. Pick up a book at your doctor’s office (we all have them.) Let those tiny brains start to process the gentle, familiar poetry of “Good Night Moon.” Sing a song from your childhood to your toddler. Consider what impact it has on a young boy to see his parent’s smile when he first names a picture in a book. Imagine your own joy when when you first realize that your little girl is actually recognizing a word. Imagine the message that joy conveys to your child.

What could be better news than this? Some of the most important tools you need to help your child reach his or her full potential in life cost nothing and are found no further than your lap.

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