Read to children from birth, doctors advise

This coming Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will announce a new policy: Doctors will now advise parents to read to their children from birth.

The reason? Exposure to vocabulary has a great effect on brain development, according to research. Children who are exposed to a large vocabulary tend to fare better academically than children who are not–and the latter come predominantly from lower-income families.

Thus, by urging parents to read to the babies from day one, the AAP hopes to help reduce academic disparities.

Now, reading to children from day one onward is a good idea–not only because it could boost their academic performance, but also because it’s the way to some interesting conversations and ideas. From a article:

Reading aloud is also a way to pass the time for parents who find endless baby talk tiresome. “It’s an easy way of talking that doesn’t involve talking about the plants outside,” said Erin Autry Montgomery, a mother of a 6-month-old boy in Austin, Texas.

But is it really necessary to begin at birth? Daniel Willingham advises waiting a bit:

First, “from birth” is too early. It’s too early because parents of newborns really do have other, more pressing things to think about such as sleeping, and figuring out how family routines change with the new family member. It’s also too early because a newborn probably is not getting that much out of being read to. Newborn can’t really see much of a book — their vision is 20/500, and they don’t see blues very well until around age 3 months. And babies are much more social at a few months of age. My fear is that parents of newborns will either ignore the advice given their other concerns, or try to follow it, find it unrewarding, and drop it. The American Academy of Pediatrics might do better to direct members to recommend read-alouds beginning when children are to get the set of immunizations delivered at 4 months of age.

The problem I see is this. What are the consequences–for the poor and wealthy alike–of reading to your children primarily in order to boost their academics? Will this be good reading?

Some who didn’t previously read to their kids might follow the advice with gusto. Some might treat it as a chore. “OK, it’s time to read an informational text together. You’ve got to do your vocabulary building.” The kids will hate it.

Willingham sees a way through this: give parents some basic advice on how to read; that will both increase the chances that the parents will follow the advice in the first place, and also make it more enjoyable. He offers a few suggestions from his forthcoming book:

  • Read aloud at the same time each day, to help make it a habit.
  • Read a little slower than you think you need to. Even simple stories are challenging for children.
  • Don’t demand perfect behavior from your child.
  • Use a dramatic voice. Ham it up. Your child is not judging your acting ability.

I would add another: get used to listening to audio recordings of poems and stories. The better your ear for these things, the better you yourself will read aloud.

Willingham also suggests providing books. After suggesting that Scholastic help out, he heard back from Scholastic that it was going to donate 500,000 books. Will they be good books? That remains to be seen.

On its own, the pediatricians’ advice might not do much. But in combination with a few other efforts, it might spur some reading.


[Thanks to Joanne for pointing out Dan Willingham’s piece.]


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    A few random thoughts:

    1) I wouldn’t worry about whether the donated books are ‘good’ books, buecause there just aren’t that many “bad” children’s books. They’re all sort of mediocre with a few really awesome (and well-known) exceptions, and as I was just reading somewhere this morning, the beautiful thing about mediocrity is that it never lets you down. (I was a children’s librarian for a while, so I feel like I can talk about this with some authority.) Even that book about the flatulent dog is just… OK. (And before you start in about how much children love that book, or how much you loved it as a child, remember that children pretty much by definition have no sense of style or taste.)

    2) When did it become the province of doctors to look after education and learning? Does anyone else think that’s sort of creepy? According to a physicalist view of consciousness, you might think that nothing in your life isn’t subject to medical recommendation and oversight…

    3) I agree with Willingham that birth is too early. It’s great to talk to newborns, but reading seems almost obscene in a way. Like dressing up a coma patient to go out and get ice cream or something.

    4) This push to get parents to read to their kids strikes me as *possibly* a collateral scheme to get lesser-educated parents to talk as if they went to school, with complete sentences and everything.

    5) I need to go get some coffee and think about posting something. I’m not supposed to be lurking in the comments this week.

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      I think #4 is definitely a major part of it. The studies are clear that low SE families don’t talk much to their kids, and when they do, they talk badly to their kids. This is trying to get language into those homes.

      • It is also trying to get the adults in the family to interact with the kids, instead of treating them like dolls.

    • Regarding #4; What fraction of low-SES parents are ABLE to read to their kids? Given the often-abysmal reading skills of too many college entrants, it’s probably a non-trivial number, particularly when non-English speakers are included.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    It would probably be too much to ask for a small controlled experiment to see if this works, right? Or has one already been done and the article just doesn’t mention it?

  3. Vocab is not about academics, it is about living. One must have sufficient vocab to express oneself, or one will be just like a toddler, eventually exploding in frustration with the inability to make one’s point, or understand the world around them.

    • I like the comparison of vocab to the visible portion of an iceberg; the knowledge the vocab represents is the much-larger, underwater portion.

  4. At one time it was believed that having babies listen to Mozart made them smarter. It seems generally agreed now that there is no casual effect. Parents who played Mozart for their babies had higher IQ than average and their children inherited a higher IQ. Incidentally that effect also seems to account for the supposed casual effect on IQ of breast feeding.

    Parents who read a lot to their offspring almost certainly average higher IQ so their offspring will average higher IQ. In general shared environment seems to have little casual effect.

  5. Parents should behave toward theri children in a way that comes naturally to them. How children turn out has little to do with parenting style.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    Audio books in the car were an excellent way to keep my sons quiet. Some goldfish crackers and Neil Gaiman’s collection were winners. My sons would listen to “The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish” about a thousand times. They thought it was hilarious.

    • The Wee Sing CDs, which come with a booklet which has all the lyrics, are also excellent in the car. There are a number of volumes; nursery rhymes, folk songs, patriotic songs, hymns etc.

  7. cranberry says:

    Truly stupid policy. It will eat up time at infant appointments which could be better spent on health issues and the infant’s developmental milestones.

    It is a monument of condescension on the part of the AAP to think that this advice will help. Interacting, playing and talking with an infant are more effective than reading to him at this stage. It would be better advice to recommend parents read a booklet on how to foster reading in children, while the children are too young to even gnaw on a book.

  8. Linda Seebach says:

    The eminent pediatricians appear to have forgotten that correlation=/=causation. Observed correlation: children who are read to a lot “fare better academically.” Actual causal links: Smarter people fare better academically; smarter people have smarter children.

    Razib Khan (who does know a lot about genetics) posted: