Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bedtime stories for young brains

A little more than a year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement saying that all pediatric primary care should include literacy promotion, starting at birth.

That means pediatricians taking care of infants and toddlers should routinely be advising parents about how important it is to read to even very young children. The policy statement, which I wrote with Dr. Pamela C. High, included a review of the extensive research on the links between growing up with books and reading aloud, and later language development and school success.

But while we know that reading to a young child is associated with good outcomes, there is only limited understanding of what the mechanism might be. Two new studies examine the unexpectedly complex interactions that happen when you put a small child on your lap and open a picture book.


Hutton JS, Horowitz-Kraus T, Mendelsohn AL, DeWitt T, Holland SK; C-MIND
Authorship Consortium. Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool
Children Listening to Stories. Pediatrics. 2015 Aug 10. pii: peds.2015-0359.
[Epub ahead of print]



Parent-child reading is widely advocated to promote cognitive development, including in recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to begin this practice at birth. Although parent-child reading has been shown in behavioral studies to improve oral language and print concepts, quantifiable effects on the brain have not been previously studied. Our study used blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the relationship between home reading environment and brain activity during a story listening task in a sample of preschool-age children. We hypothesized that while listening to stories, children with greater home reading exposure would exhibit higher activation of left-sided brain regions involved with semantic processing (extraction of meaning).


Nineteen 3- to 5-year-old children were selected from a longitudinal study of normal brain development. All completed blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging using an age-appropriate story listening task, where narrative alternated with tones. We performed a series of whole-brain regression analyses applying composite, subscale, and individual reading-related items from the validated StimQ-P measure of home cognitive environment as explanatory variables for neural activation.


Higher reading exposure (StimQ-P Reading subscale score) was positively correlated (P < .05, corrected) with neural activation in the left-sided parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, a "hub" region supporting semantic language processing, controlling for household income.


In preschool children listening to stories, greater home reading exposure is positively associated with activation of brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension, controlling for household income. These neural biomarkers may help inform eco-bio-developmental models of emergent literacy.


Montag JL, Jones MN, Smith LB. The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the
Statistics for Language Learning. Psychol Sci. 2015 Aug 4. pii: 0956797615594361.
[Epub ahead of print]


Young children learn language from the speech they hear. Previous work suggests that greater statistical diversity of words and of linguistic contexts is associated with better language outcomes. One potential source of lexical diversity is the text of picture books that caregivers read aloud to children. Many parents begin reading to their children shortly after birth, so this is potentially an important source of linguistic input for many children. We constructed a corpus of 100 children's picture books and compared word type and token counts in that sample and a matched sample of child-directed speech. Overall, the picture books contained more unique word types than the child-directed speech. Further, individual picture books generally contained more unique word types than length-matched, child-directed conversations. The text of picture books may be an important source of vocabulary for young children, and these findings suggest a mechanism that underlies the language benefits associated with reading to children.

Courtesy of a colleague


  1. It’s like hypnosis for children.

    A book that promises to make children fall asleep in minutes has topped Amazon’s best-seller list.

    The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep is a 22-page tale of Roger the Rabbit, who is trying to catch up on his sleep. Roger enlists the help of friends Sleep Snail and Uncle Yawn. The focus of the tome is to use meandering sentence structure and specific words to induce kids into a hazy stupor. One such example:

    Think slowly, breath slowly and calm, slow and calm’ and ‘let your whole body be heavy, so heavy it feels like it falls… just like a leaf, that falls down, slowly down, down… Your eyelids are so heavy.

    The book was written by Swedish author and psychologist Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin. He recommends parents read the story methodically, and to even yawn while reading it. Children will mimic their parent’s behavior and end up quiet and napping in no time. “It’s the verbal equivalent of rocking your child to sleep,” Ehrlin told The Express.

    Parents who have bought the book are posting rave reviews on Amazon .

    “I’m actually speechless,” one parent wrote on the site, “I’m sat here waiting for someone to pinch me. Bedtime just went from take 2-3 hours to taking 12 mins. We made it to the middle of page 2.”

    “It feels almost like a guided meditation,” wrote another happy parent.

    Ehrlin is the first independent publisher to top Amazon’s best-seller list. You can also get a free e-book version at Ehrlin’s website.
    Courtesy of my daughter.

  2. Now there's a new book that's allegedly guaranteed to put our children to sleep, and maybe even adults, too. "I can make anyone fall asleep," reads the cover of "The Rabbit who wants to fall asleep" by Swedish author, motivational speaker and behavioral scientist Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin. It's the story of a rabbit named Roger (pronounced Rooo geeer) who can't fall asleep, and the characters he encounters, such as the Heavy-eyed owl. Of course, Ehrlin promises they won't make it that far in this, his first book for children...

    For those who want more, Ehrlin says he will be writing two more bedtime stories. He says he's heard from parents who say they love the book but are getting bored with it, so he'll be offering alternatives. Then he plans to move on to another major battle: potty training.

    Ehrlin says all he wants is to help parents get their children to sleep. Skeptics say Ehrlin, and Penguin Random House, are preying on the vulnerability of exhausted parents...

    The first page offers detailed instructions to the reader, including a warning not to read it aloud near someone who is driving. It says to read italicized words with a slow, calm voice, and emphasize the bold words. It's also recommended that the child lie down and not look at the pictures. Throughout the wordy 10-page book there are places to insert yawns as well as the name of the child being read to. Sentences using the phrase "fall asleep now" appear frequently. The book also is deliberately long, with instructions to finish reading the book all the way through even after sleep is reached, to ensure children are beyond waking...

    Atlanta pre-kindergarten teacher Britton Pierce likens reading the book to relaxation exercises and yoga. The first time she read it to her students, "I had to get up and move so I wouldn't fall asleep," she says. She's read it to about six children so far and says it has been a success.

    Unfortunately, I did not have the same experience with my 3-year-old daughter. She quickly lost interest in the book the first time through and protested future attempts. A few weeks later my husband read it to her and I got excited as her eyes grew heavy. I quietly left the room assuming she'd be asleep in no time, but after it was over she ran down the hall to her brother's room. On my last attempt she threw the book on the floor and proclaimed, "No don't read that book!"
    Courtesy of: