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To support infant development, encourage parents to read, sing, and tell stories with their children

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By Asiya Kazi and Sarah Daily

The first three years of life are critical for parent-child bonding. Nurturing care and protection provided to children during this time period promote their development, mental health, and resiliency across the life span. In particular, reading, singing, and storytelling to infants on a daily basis have been demonstrated to advance children’s health and socioemotional development.

Reading to infants supports their emergent literacy skills, increases parents’ positive views of the bonds they share with their infants, and fosters infants’ cognitive and socioemotional intelligence. Similarly, singing to infants can soothe them and reduce their stress levels, while storytelling can improve recall ability among young children more than story-reading.

Child Trends analyzed the data for Zero to Three’s 2020 State of Babies Yearbook, finding that only about one third of U.S. mothers reported reading to their baby every day (38 percent) and just under two thirds (58 percent) reported singing songs or telling stories to their babies on a daily basis. In addition, parents with higher incomes were more likely than low-income parents to report daily reading and singing to their babies. This may be one way in which the combined stress of economic instability and unpredictable work schedules could impede parents’ availability to engage in important early learning experiences with their children at home. There were also large differences between states. For example, mothers in Vermont had the highest self-reported rates of both reading (59 percent) and singing or telling stories to their baby every day (71 percent); by contrast, only 28 percent of mothers in California reported reading to their babies every day, and just 52 percent* of mothers in North Dakota reported singing or telling stories to their babies on a daily basis.

State early childhood leaders looking to support these enriching activities can draw on several national evidence-based initiatives that enhance children’s early literacy and language skills by supporting parents in reading, singing, and storytelling with their children. Among these intensive approaches, the Early Head Start Home-Based Option is a model shown to significantly improve attachment security between 18-month-old infants and their parents or caregivers. It focuses on cultivating language and literacy skills and social/emotional development among children.  Raising a Reader and Reach Out and Read are other examples of evidence-based initiatives situated in communities across the nation that strive to support caregivers in promoting early literacy with their children. These initiatives coach parents on interactive book reading techniques, provide children with books, and connect families to local libraries. Kindermusik, an intervention in which caregivers and children ages 0 to 7 play and learn together through song-based activities, was found to improve infants’ perceptions of musical rhythms.

When making choices about how best to support young children, early childhood leaders and policymakers shouldn’t forget that, by taking the time to read, sing, and tell stories to their infants each day, parents create special bonds that promote lifelong cognitive, social, and emotional growth for our country’s youngest ones.

* Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas reported lower values than North Dakota for this measure, but these states’ values may be unreliable.