READ TO YOUR CHILD — FROM BIRTH! by Nancy McDermott
Imagine, it’s your baby’s first check up. She spends most of her time sleeping, eating, and filling up diapers. She can’t hold her head up or roll over or smile yet. Your pediatrician examines her, talks to you about infant feeding and immunization, and then explains that you need to set aside time to read to her aloud, maybe Goodnight Moon. Maybe Shakespeare.
As of next week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in partnership with child advocates and Scholastic, will be asking its members to tell parents to read aloud to their babies from birth as, in the words of Dr. Pamela High who wrote the policy, “A daily fun family activity.”
Why so early?
The focus on early childhood is driven by two sets of assumptions. The first is what psychologist Jerome Kagan calls “infant determinism” or the long-standing folk belief that the experiences of very early childhood determines what happened later in life. The other is the so-called Myth of the First Three Years, the mistaken idea that a very brief period in early childhood, when the brain is rapidly forming synapses connecting nerve cells, represents a critical window during which increased stimulation and enriched environments and can help children build better brains.
The AAP repeats these claims in its statement that “reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships.” It also asserts that the new policy “provides a practical and evidence- based opportunity to support early brain development in primary care practice.” But parents would do well to be skeptical of these new imperatives.
Yes, babies’ brains do grow dramatically in early childhood – but this has no relationship to a child’s capacity to learn. In fact the consensus among neuroscientists and psychologists is that “more extensive periods of childhood are just, if not more significant than those of infancy and neurobiological development continues into adulthood.”
Does reading help children to do better academically by making them “ready to learn”? Again, we should be critical of advocates’ claims. While it is true that children who are “school-ready” do better at age three, by the time they reach the third grade these advantages fade entirely so that it is impossible to tell who was “school ready” and who was not.
Is This The Best Way to Bond?
But what about the idea that reading aloud to your child will strengthen your relationship to them? Reading is a great way to have fun with your baby (if you like to read) but it is not the only way. Parents and babies are actually remarkably good at coming up with ways to have fun and “build their relationship“ all on their own.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of telling parents to read to their babies. It’s simple; it promises spectacular results; it is based on evidence – at least up to a point. But will it really help? Will infants really appreciate the recommended 15-20 minutes per day? Will parents? Or will this become like AAP recommendations about breast-feeding and screen time: just another thing for parents to worry about?
[i] Macvarish, J, Lee and Lowe, P The First Three Years’ Movement and the Infant Brain: A review of Critiques