Sneak peek: What are the best books for baby brain development? New research helps us sort through classic baby books and points to a certain type of book.
Do you remember when you first read your own child your favorite classic books? Maybe they were so tiny they couldn’t even hold their head up. You knew they wouldn’t understand much of what you were reading but you knew reading to your baby was important to child development and parenting. Plus, they loved the sound of your voice. But what are the best books for baby brain development? How did you know how to choose what to read aloud to your child? Maybe they were the ones passed down to you from your parents or other relatives.
What book did you read? I honestly do not remember what I first read to my boys. We had a children’s book-themed baby shower for my oldest son so we ended up with TONS of classic books for babies like Goodnight Moon, Brown Bear Brown Bear, and Pat the Bunny. I loved all of them and I loved reading to him.
Once they were old enough to be more aware of what I was reading, I was naturally attracted to “labeling” books. You know those board books for babies that label all the animals, cars, and shapes. Like most parents, I wanted my kids to be able to learn words, and labeling books seemed to be the best books to read to babies and good for brain development. My boys did seem to enjoy these books, especially once they were old enough to name the objects themselves.
New research, however, shows us that certain types of baby books might be even better for babies’ brain development. A recent study of 6-9 month-old infants considered how babies’ learning was influenced by being read books that had either category labels (e.g., dog, cat, rabbit) versus individual-level labels (e.g., Jack, Pat, Cindy).
Now this distinction between category and individual labels may seem unimportant to us adults but to babies that are just at the cusp of learning language and understanding how words work, these categories represent different types of learning.
You may wonder how scientists study babies learning since they cannot yet talk or even identify objects. Well, thanks to modern technology, researchers can use fancy eye-scanning cameras to track how the babies’ eyes move. For researchers, eye movements indicate what the babies are attending to and interested in. Similarly, researchers also use those cool caps with sensors to measure the babies’ brain activity. This was another part of this study.
Best Books for Baby Brain Development
If you are a science nerd like me the results of this study are pretty fascinating, but they have real-life implications for all of us parents too. The study showed that babies who were read books with individual-level labels (e.g., Jack, Pat, Cindy) spent more time attending to the images. Secondly, looking at the brain activity showed that these babies were more likely to be able to differentiate between the images after being read the story.
In other words, babies learned more from the books with individual labels than category labels. They could tell the difference between the images better. Pretty amazing for 6-9 month-old babies!
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We all know that reading to children, even babies, is important. This research further delineates what the reading actually does for the babies’ brains. In general, it helps them learn to put together an image and a word. Furthermore, any reading (not just individual-level labeling) helps babies by exposing them to lots and lots of words.
Have you heard of the “word gap?” Studies have shown that one of the primary reasons for the disparity in academic achievement between low-income and higher-income students is due to the amount of time parents spend talking to their young children. In a 1995 study, researchers found that low-income children heard about 600 words per hour, compared to 2,100 words per hour in a higher-income family. It became clear to researchers that exposure to language was one of the key factors to help close the achievement gap they were seeing in these children years later.
Related reading: Child Psychology Classics: The Mirror Test (aka When Do Babies Recognize Themselves in a Mirror)
It turns out that besides reading, one of the best things we can do for babies is just talk…a lot! Many parents do this naturally–we talk to our babies all day long about what we are doing, what we are seeing, etc. Some researchers have called this “dialogic living.” In other words, we narrate our day to our children.
This too, is why studies indicate that babies vocalize less when playing with electronic toys compared to books. With books, parents are prompted to read and discuss the pictures. With electronic toys, parents tend to let the toy do all the “work” and they don’t talk as much. Now that’s food for thought!
Imagine, however, if you are under a lot of stress, your mind is racing with how to get to your job or how to pay the bills. Do you think narrating your day (or your stresses) to your baby is at the top of your priority list? Maybe not. This is just one example of how the stress of poverty impacts children, even the littlest babies. Fortunately, many programs have begun across the country to help low-income families learn more about talking to their babies in this playful, narrative way. Hopefully, these, along with equitable access to preschool with help alleviate these economic disparities.
Best Baby Books
I’ve done (some) of the work for you by searching through lists of best baby books for ones that use individual-level labels (rather than category-level). These are just a few examples, but also be aware that any reading with your baby is beneficial. These books might just help add to the variety of your growing library. Enjoy reading these top books to read to babies!
Pat the Bunny–the classic tale loved by many babies. It has all those cool “touchable” pages with different textures.
Is Your Mama a Llama?–Lloyd the llama is on a search to figure out if other animals have a llama for their mama. Nice rhyming and a lovely story.
Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear--like all little ones, Jesse Bear has some trouble figuring out what to wear (and how to put it on). Great for toddlers who want to do all the dressing themselves.
Corduroy–who doesn’t love this book? A sweet story of a bear’s search for his missing button and a home. (Plus it’s super-cute to hear your toddler try to say “Corduroy!”)
My Very First Mother Goose–these may seem “old-fashioned” but there is a reason they have stood the test of time. Babies love the rhythmic sounds and fun characters. Still a must-have in any children’s library.
Gossie–kids can help Gossie the gosling find her bright red boots.
The Snowy Day–a simple, beautiful book about young Peter exploring the snow. Plus it’s one of the first children’s books featuring an African-American lead character in an urban environment.
Blueberries for Sal–another classic that maybe you read as a child. Kids love the “kerplunck” sound as the berries fall into the bucket.