Reading to a baby can feel like performing a rather boring monologue for an unappreciative audience of one. But that isn’t so. Reading to kids massively aids in their development. Now, new research is proving that not only reading, but which books parents favor, can make a massive difference for kids. When moms and dads read books that assign names to people, animals, and objects, infants seem to learn to retain information more efficiently and effectively. This can be credited to the very real power of what researchers call “shared gaze.”
“Our results suggest that books that name characters or animals may be particularly important during the first year of life and lead to increased attention, increased learning and recognition, and more specialized brain responses,” Lisa Scott, a University of Florida psychology professor and co-author of the study, told Fatherly.
Scott and her team used eye-tracking and electroencephalograms, or EEGs, to track the attention and learning of 23 infants at 6-months and 9-months-old. After the first test visit at six months, parents were broken into three groups. One group of parents read books with eight pictures of characters with names like Boris, Fiona, or Jamar every day for 10 minutes for two weeks, every other day for two weeks, and then less and less over the remainder over the months. The second group did the same with books with the identical images in which characters were given category-level names like dog or cat. Finally, a third group of infants the same age were purposely not read to during the experiment. At 9-months-old, all the babies returned to the lab for follow-up attention and learning tests.
Results confirmed what Scott had expected. Infants whose parents read books with individual-level names spent more time focusing and attending to images, and their brains were able to differentiate separate characters after reading. The same effect was not observed when parents read books with category names. Despite the small sample size, the findings strengthen a body of work meant to maximize the developmental benefits of reading to babies. Scott notes that some data was lost due to infant fatigue and fussiness. However, the results combined with prior studies are enough to help parents make the most of storytime. And the good news is they don’t have to buy new books.
“The important part of this work is that the findings did not surprise us,” Scott said, noting that the main goal of the research was to replicate past findings before making any recommendations. “We think that parents can make up names if they aren’t there or combine books with multiple named characters at bedtime,” he added.
Parents can also rest assured that these books aren’t particularly hard to find or new to the market. On the list of encouraged titles? Pat the Bunny.