Reading to Your Infant has Massive Impact on Brain Development


Janey Strong

Reading to your infant is one of the best things you can do for their growing brain.  All those cute books in your baby’s nursery – they’re not just for looks!  While many people feel silly reading to a new baby, it’s one of the most worthwhile things you can do.  Babies may not understand all of the words and concepts of reading in the beginning, but they understand more than you think!  They’re making connections in their brain with each word, image and page being turned.  

Reading to your infant is an investment in their future and one definitely worth making time for.  Fran Hawk, researcher and writer says, “Babies learn to listen, speak and read from the time that they are born.”  Some actually argue it starts even earlier – in the womb

Let’s go over the 6 ways reading to your baby will build their brain!  

Cultivate Language Development

As many researchers have discovered, babies build language skills right out of the womb and possibly even inside it.  Language skills are built by babies hearing words (over and over again), either spoken or read.  While simply talking with your baby is a wonderful way to build language skills, reading introduces words to their vocabulary that are not commonly used in spoken language.  

Jim Trelease says, “The eventual strength of our vocabulary is determined not by the ten thousand common words that we know but by how many “rare words” we know.”  83% of normal conversations with children are drawn from only 1000 commonly used words.  So, we can’t rely on just conversing with our children to build a rich and varied vocabulary.

Reading to your infant exposes them to new words, sentence structures, and patterns, which also helps expand their language skills. Research has shown, by the age of 2, children who are read to regularly display greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies, and higher cognitive skills than their peers.

A mother reading to her infant.

Build Cognitive Development

80% of a child’s brain develops by the age of 3.  Your baby’s brain grows and develops at such an incredible rate that in the first year. Their brain will double in size! The more stimulation and connections that are wired through life experiences, the more growth and development will occur.  In the first years of life, their growing brains are capable of making about one million new neural connections every second.  That’s like 500 new connections by the time you read this blog post!  I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, babies are like little sponges; this is so true!  From day one, they are absorbing all the stimuli around them; what they hear, see, smell, taste and feel.  

Reading to your infant engages their cognitive abilities. They learn to focus, concentrate, and pay attention to the story, illustrations, and the reader’s voice. As they listen, babies start to recognize shapes, colors, and objects, which enhances their cognitive skills and stimulates their curiosity.

As babies grow, they also start to recognize patterns, remember details, and predict what happens next in a story. Reading helps develop their cognitive skills, including memory, pattern recognition, and critical thinking. It also introduces concepts like cause and effect, sequencing, and problem-solving.

Enhance Imagination and Creativity

While the beautifully written words in the books are important, the illustrations play just as big a role for babies.  Children’s books have colorful, vivid illustrations that begin to spark a baby’s imagination. When a baby experiences different characters, settings, and ideas through books they begin to understand the concept of make-believe and learn to think creatively.  I mean how often do you see a T-Rex or flying dragon in real life?

In your baby’s first days of life they take in information and stimuli every moment to help build their understanding of the world. Books help them form that understanding and also ignite their imagination. A baby’s expanding imagination helps them learn that what they see in books can relate to things in real life. For example, a picture of a dog is like their dog or the dogs they’ve seen in the neighborhood.

There are so many ways for babies to explore books!  At 5-6 months, touching and tasting are how your baby explores and expands their imagination. This is where touchy feely or indestructible books come in handy because babies explore and expand their imagination with their hands and mouth.  

An infant reading a colorful book on the floor.

Encourage Emotional and Social Development

At the end of the day, the only thing your baby really wants is YOU!  Reading to your infant provides a vehicle for you to be present, and connected. The digital age steals this from so many families.  Reading to your baby is one of the most impactful activities simply because it requires you to be present.  You have to put down your phone and just BE.  

This kind of connection and presence is so important to children. They need this closeness and your presence to feel connected, loved, safe, protected and confident.  They truly thrive on your undivided attention.  Reading together creates a positive and nurturing environment, promoting healthy social and emotional development. And no, you can’t spoil them with your time and attention.  The more, the better!

Reading books with emotional themes helps babies understand and express emotions.  They will begin to understand concepts of love, friendship or sadness.  They experience characters expressing these emotions and realize that they have these emotions, too.

Build Early Literacy Skills

There seems to be some confusion about what the term early literacy really means.  Many people think it means – early reading!  But, that’s not at all what it means.  Early literacy skills refer to skills that children need as a foundation for learning to read.  These skills start developing on the day they are born.  Early literacy encompasses all of a child’s experiences from life including conversations, stories (oral and written), books and play.

Some of the very, very first literacy building skills that infants learn from being read to are:

  1. How to hold a book right side up
  2. How to turn the pages at the right time
  3. They learn that things you say represent what they see in images or pictures
  4. They learn that things you say represent the words on a page
  5. They will start to point and try to repeat words and sounds
  6. They will pick out and choose a favorite book
  7. They will see you enjoying a book and reading

While all of these things might seem so very simple – these are all skills that they will build upon to eventually become a reader.  The more familiar they are with them – the better.

A mother and her infant son reading a book together.

Increase Attention Span 

A baby’s attention begins developing days after birth as their eyes begin to absorb light stimuli. In the beginning, newborns have a limited range of focus from about 8-12 inches from their face.  As their newborn vision develops and expands to full color vision, the use of black and white and high contrast images are very stimulating.  There are wonderful books that enhance and nurture an infant’s vision, tracking and focus. You can download the list here.

They say that a baby’s attention span is equivalent to about 2-3 minutes per year of life.  Babies’ attention spans grow as their bodies grow. Very young babies distract easily and move quickly from one activity to the next. Their attention will only last for a minute or two at a time. 

A baby’s attention span is cultivated through shared activities with a caregiver like reading and playing. “Real-time effects of parent behavior can really be helpful as they expand a child’s attention,” says Chen Yu, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University.

Also, research has shown that babies tend to pay attention to what their parents pay attention to. Because babies are masters of imitation, the more they see you reading and experience reading sessions with you, the better off they will be.

It’s worth it!

In closing, I hope you’ve learned that your baby is born with infinite possibilities!  Don’t be overwhelmed – practice being intentional and use practical, research-based strategies to guide them along.  At birth your baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, that’s about as many stars as there are in the Milky Way.  Mind-blowing, right?

Reading is just one way to help wire those synapses together for a strong foundation of learning and thriving.  If you’d like to learn more ways to do this, download 7 Ways To Build Your Baby’s Brain, free.  If you’d like more in depth steps of what to read, how to read, when to read, etc. check out our Boost Your Baby’s Brain from Day, one mini course.

Overall, reading to your infant provides a nurturing and stimulating environment that lays the foundation for their future learning, language skills, and cognitive abilities. They were born to do this and so were YOU!!  And we’ll be here to help you.

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