Reading to babies does more for language development than playing with toys or puppets. More back-and-forth interaction could be the reason why, a new study finds.
Researchers looked at how mothers responded to their 12-month-olds during book reading, puppet play, and toy play. They found that the babies made more speech-like sounds during reading than when playing with puppets or toys. They also discovered mothers were more responsive to these types of sounds while reading to their child than during the other activities.
The findings might explain why book reading has been linked to language development in young children.
“A lot of research shows that book reading even to infants as young as six months of age is important to language outcomes, but I’m trying to explain why by looking at the specifics, which could be responding to speech-like sounds,” says Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa.
“If we know what specific interactions are occurring between caregiver and child and we can link that to language outcomes, then it wouldn’t just be telling parents, ‘Read a lot of books to your kids.’ That would definitely be important to tell them, but you could also identify specific behaviors to do during book reading.”
The study shows that no matter the context, mothers’ responses to speech-like sounds were often imitations or an expansion of the sound. For example, if the baby said, “Ba,” the mother would respond with “Ba-ba” or “Ball,” even if it had nothing to do with the story being read. Mothers frequently provide labels during reading, too.
Gros-Louis says she used mothers and their babies for this study because their interactions have been studied more than those between fathers and their children, so she could more readily compare her findings to past studies.