A young parent is walking a baby in a stroller with the baby facing forward. The parent is using a phone or focused on getting today’s run in or also walking the dog. Familiar scenes, right? While parents need “me” time that sometimes only happens if they combine it with baby time, such combos can mean parents miss opportunities for interactions that could foster their little ones’ healthy brain development.
Research has proven that 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, and does so as a result of interaction with the world. And since the majority of a baby’s world consists of time with family members, her brain development, language development, concept of what language is and how important clear and joyful communication with others can be, pretty much totally depends on adults. That means the baby facing forward in a stroller not being talked to is observing the world, but not interacting with it.
When children are very young, we adults can’t actually tell them why language and reading and communication are powerful resources, unparalleled by anything else they will ever learn at school or the workplace. So, we have to show them…and they’re watching us all the time. Whatever we adults do, we are showing our babies how the world works…or doesn’t. If we show our babies silence, lack of eye contact, or frequent distraction by other things, those concepts will be embedded deep in their minds and will taint every interaction they have…or don’t.
Returning to the stroller scenario…consider that even talking on that phone under these circumstances is better than texting, since the baby can hear dad’s voice and the flow of language coming from him. And greeting neighbors and others along the way provides baby with insights into what is possible in our relational world.
The point to remember is that there are many appropriate ways to nurture healthy brain development and there are many unique ways for babies to respond to parent’s efforts. Children can be doing a lot of things while a book is being read to them, but what they engage with, indeed, what leaves the most lasting impact, is a loving, more experienced person interacting with them.
When a book is read with children, this language-rich experience instills powerful expectations. The baby will anticipate there will be laughing and new discoveries and timely explanations and acceptance of baby-appropriate wonderings and the launch of infantile (that’s good!) inquiries. The result is that little ones grow in neurological strength and complexity, in richness of language, and in powerful concepts about how the world works and how humans can be together.
So, putting a book into the heart of interaction is a lovely win-win for parent and child…all best done in those fertile years before age 5.