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Does It Matter What You Read to Your Baby?

Are you cheating if you use storytime to catch up on your own reading?

Timofeyev Alexander/Shutterstock

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a recommendation today advising parents to read out loud to their babies every day from the time they’re born. But if parents are going to carve out time every day reading books to tiny people who can’t understand them, can they use it as an opportunity to make headway on their own reading list?

Study after study has shown that the number of words babies hear in their earliest years impacts literacy, vocabulary, and reading comprehension for years to come. The consequences can be devastating for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, whose parents are far less likely to engage them verbally; according to one recent government study, only about one-third of children living below the poverty line are read to every day, compared to 60 percent of kids whose parents earn four times the poverty threshold. In a famous study in the 1990s, psychologists found that, by the age of three, children born into the poorest families had heard about 30 million words fewer than their peers born into the highest income bracket. By the time they enter pre-school, kids who haven’t been read to daily are significantly cognitively disadvantaged.

The AAP’s statement, like most of the research on early literacy, focuses on the benefits of early reading without comparing different types of reading materials. From babies’ point of view, is there any difference between hearing Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss?

It hasn’t been thoroughly studied, but experts suggest parents can be pretty selfish in choosing books that appeal to their own tastes rather than those of very young kids: Like dogs and cats, babies respond to pitch, not vocabulary. “The incantation of the story is much more important than what that story’s about,” said Dr. Anne Fernald, a psychologist who researches early language development at Stanford. “The melody of the voice is exciting to children.”

“Reading has a very different cadence than having a conversation,” said Shannon Ayers, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research. “It exposes them to more language development.”

And the baby might even be more attentive if the parent actually cares about the story. “A way to get the baby engaged in the book is if the mom or dad or caretaker is really engaged,” said Anne Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley and author of Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers.

As babies get older, though, parents should take children’s needs into account. “At three to four months, it’s about sharing that experience,” said Ayers. “It’s about using books to identify and label things.” That’s where bright colors and big, hard-cover books come in. “The books should be things that lead to interaction and taking turns,” said Ellen Frede, a research fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Even though the baby may not be responding with words, they’re learning a really important social skill and they’re hearing language.” Across the board, experts say it doesn’t matter whether the text is fiction or non-fiction, as long as there’s some sort of narrative arc.

Unfortunately, experts say parents should indulge children who want to hear the same book read again and again. “Reading a storybook over and over with a child enables the child to predict what’s coming next,” said Fernald. The Little Engine That Could might not be enthralling for an adult the fifteenth time, but Fernald promises that for a young kid, knowing what comes next is the story is “an exhilarating experience.”