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Sock It to Me: How Reading to Baby Trumps Laundry ‘Fun’

A woman reads to a baby.

In an ideal world, I would spend much of the day reading to my four-month-old baby. Scrunchy Face would sit cuddled with me on the couch as we devoured book after book about butterflies, dinosaurs, dinosaurs eating butterflies or, better yet, butterflies eating dinosaurs. (Has Mothra made its way into children’s picture books yet? That. Would. Be. Awesome.)

In reality, sometimes I find it tough to fit quality reading time into our day, so I try to make up for it by actively involving Scrunchy Face in my chores, such as describing what I’m doing as I sort the laundry, narrating my quests to match orphaned socks with the fevered enthusiasm of a Spanish soap opera character: “What? There’s no second brown-striped lefty to match brown-striped righty? ¡Ay Dios Mio!”

Until recently, my reasoning went something like this: Reading about socks in “Good Night Moon” to baby = good. Showing and talking about real socks to baby = just as good if not better!

Who could argue with such sound logic?

Try Professor Leslie Rescorla, psychology professor and director of the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College. Rescorla, the co-editor of the forthcoming book “Late Talkers, Language Development Interventions and Outcomes,” made headlines last year when she compiled a list of the 25 most commonly used words and expressions by children at age 2.

Incidentally, “sock” wasn’t on it, but “shoe” was. Eh, close enough.

In any case, Rescorla splashed some cold water on my laundry loquacity theory.

She explained that while it’s important to point out real world objects to kids — it gets them interested in their environment and does help build vocabulary — there’s another type of development that happens when you read a book to a child.

“When you’re reading book, you’re helping the child make the link between the physical object in the world and a picture. That’s a cognitive advance because a picture is two-dimensional,” she said.

Of course, making the cognitive link between 2D and 3D is not something I need to worry about for a four-month-old, but there are other benefits reading can provide over chore-related chatter too, she said.

Books can offer rich visual stimuli –like the kittens, the mittens and the quiet, old, somewhat creepy bunny lady of “Good Night Moon” — which young babies love.

As they hit eight or nine months, Rescorla added, books can help infants build their attention spans as they focus on listening to a story until it’s finished…and often hearing the same story over and over can become a source of comfort. Plus, there’s that warm, cozy feeling of nestling with a loved one while reading that also helps them feel secure.

Here’s the part where harried parents of young infants (like me) can breathe a sigh of relief: at Scrunchy Face’s age, a total of just 15 to 20 minutes of reading for the day is fine, Rescorla says. After all, these days he’s largely focused on motor skills like reaching for things, trying to turn over and projectile pooping — if that last one’s not considered a motor skill, it should be!

Which brings me back to laundry. Truth be told, the sock stuff is a red herring — getting stains out of baby clothes is where the real laundry action is. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I shouldn’t spend too, too much time explaining that to Scrunchy Face. We’ve got other important things to accomplish, like wishing good night to the moon and noises everywhere.

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