My second child was a "colicky" baby and my poor, sleep deprived wife did not want our child to cry. Luckily, we found that Ariel would stop crying if she being held along with some walking and talking. So we started taking turns doing this while the other parent slept.
I am not much on idle conversation and my singing voice would never soothe anyone – let alone a sensitive infant – which led me to start reading books to her in a sing-song voice. I didn't choose children's books though, but adult books mainly on history, especially Robert K. Massie's 700 page plus volume on Peter the Great of Russia. Then a funny thing happened when my daughter took AP European history 16 years later. She told me as they were reading a chapter about Peter the Great, she thought that she had read it before. Ends up, that chapter was from Massie's book.
While my story may be one of coincidence, I can't stress enough the importance of reading to children from birth, and now there's a renewed movement to spread this message. Last week, Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, in collaboration with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Reach Out and Read, and children's publisher Scholastic Inc. announced "The Too Small to Fail" initiative to encourage reading to children from birth. Clinton spoke as head of the Clinton Foundation, which helps improve the welfare of pre-school children.
The AAP, the largest American pediatric professional organization, also issued a policy statement with the opening: "Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships…"
Why involve pediatricians in reading? Because study after study shows that when a medical professional advises reading to children and gives the child a new reading book to take home, reading increases in that child's household and so do language skills. In addition, it's another way for parents to become more engaged with their children. Using this as their guiding principle, Reach Out and Read gives out more than 4 million books yearly to children ages six months to 6 years while they have their regular doctor's visits. Scholastic sells them books at a discount.
I've told parents since my first days as a pediatrician over three decades ago about how important human language is to children – specifically, a human voice talking to them. Listening to television, radio or recorded materials won't help children develop language skills in the same way. One-third of American children start school without adequate language skills to succeed. Children from language rich families hear 10 times more words than children from linguistically poor families and that translates to hugely more school success. School and life are about communicating and using language with ease, the more language heard, the better children will do.
It does not even matter what language is heard at first. Children from multilingual families start talking a bit later in life, but they are clearly conversant in both languages (or more, some of my patients speak four languages at home). Children who come to school with good language skills usually do better in school.
Of course, children have all levels of natural language skills, but no matter where they start in ability, hearing lots of human language in sentences helps every child develop. Interestingly, simply having books in the home, whether the children are read to or not, helps language skills seemingly because it promotes interest in books.
How about electronic books? We do not know. Movies and TV shows on devices such as iPads do not seem to help language any more than TV does. I believe that book displayed on such devices and read by another human being should work with language, but we do not have the data yet.
So read to your baby, talk to your baby. It will help in more ways than most people can imagine. And remember, my daughter did really well on the section of her high school course on Peter the Great.