In an effort to promote early childhood development by “immunizing against illiteracy,” the American Academy of Pediatrics last year published a policy statement that read, in part:

Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.


A new study, published this month in Pediatrics, reveals where most of this brain growth occurs. When reading occurs, the researchers found:

… higher activation in a confluent region of left- sided, posterior cortex involving the occipital fusiform, lateral occipital, posterior inferior temporal, posterior middle temporal, posterior cingulate, and angular gyri, and left precuneus…


Amy Norton presents the results… in English:

“It’s often said that reading builds brains,” said study leader Dr. John Hutton, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “That seems obvious, but you want to show that it’s actually true.”

So Hutton’s team used functional MRI scans to measure real-time brain activity in 19 children, aged 3 to 5 years, as they listened to stories and to sounds other than speech.

Parents were interviewed about “cognitive stimulation” at home, including how often they read to their children. Based on their responses, the number ranged from two nights a week to every night.

Overall, Hutton’s team found, the more often children had story time at home, the more brain activity they showed while listening to stories in the research lab.

The difference was seen in a brain region involved in so-called semantic processing — the ability to extract meaning from words. There was “particularly robust” activity, the researchers said, in areas where mental images are formed from what is heard.

Hutton said that finding is especially intriguing, because reading to children is assumed to spark their imaginations.

“When children listen to stories, they have to put it all together in their mind’s eye,” Hutton explained.


Norton gives the biggest reason for promoting literacy, and doing so by reading books as opposed to using electronic devices:

As it stands, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to read to their children every day, starting at birth. That pre-kindergarten time is a critical time for brain development, Hutton said. Other research has found that children with poor reading skills in first grade usually do not “catch up” with their peers.

But is there something special about old-fashioned books, versus the reading apps many toddlers are now using on smartphones and tablets? Both Hutton and Korman said it’s not clear whether reading from a device could have different effects on young kids’ emerging reading skills.

However, Korman added, some researchers have voiced concerns that if young children spend too much time on devices, that could take away from human interactions that teach them about empathy, problem-solving and other critical life lessons.

That human connection, Korman said, is one of the reasons it’s so important to read to your child. “The benefits go beyond their cognitive development,” he said.


Pediatrician Claire McCarthy agrees on the importance of this “human connection.” She believes “when screens displace interactions with people, they are bad for babies and toddlers”:

It’s really amazing what happens with the brain in the first years of life, especially the first three years. The brain is literally growing and changing and making connections every single second — and those connections (and by connections I mean literal ones with neurons in the brain) are fueled and guided by experience.

What makes all the difference is interactions, especially “serve and return” interactions. Baby makes a noise, Parent makes one back — and it grows into a conversation during which Baby not only begins to imitate particular sounds, but learns about the concept of conversation, and about how different facial expressions can have different meaning. Baby rolls a ball and Sister rolls it back — and Baby learns not only how to physically roll a ball and catch it, but about turn-taking, relationship-building, and how to interact and play with others.

This is all pretty crucial stuff — and stuff that takes repetition to learn. If a kid is playing on a tablet or watching TV instead of learning it, the brain develops differently, in ways that aren’t good — and that may become permanent.