Chatting to your baby about nothing in particular while you're getting ready or doing work around the house can be better for their communication skills than sitting down and reading to them.

That's what a new study by researchers from the UK Economic and Social Research Institute and the University of Limerick in Ireland found when they investigated the effects of various language-based interactions between parents and their infants. 

The team, led by psychologist Suzanne Egan from the University of Limerick, interviewed the parents of 7,845 nine-month-old babies about the kinds of activities they do to educate and communicate with them, including reading books together, showing them pictures, and talking to them. Measures were then taken of the infants' communication and problem-solving skills by asking the parents if their children had reached certain milestones as determined by the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, a standarised screening test used by organisations such as the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society.

Looking at previous research on the benefits of reading, the team expected that it would be significantly more beneficial than the other, less structured, activities.

"Reading to young children has long been recognised as an important precursor to language and literacy development," the researchers report in the journal Child Language Teaching and Therapy, "It encourages vocabulary development, positive attitudes towards reading, as well as strengthening emotional ties between the child and parent. Reading to pre-school age children can make starting school easier for them as well as providing a head-start in literacy.

Previous studies have shown that, unlike solo activities such as building blocks or figuring out basic puzzles, it also gives the children the opportunity for joint attention, which facilitates the rapid development of skills related to long-term memory processing, word-object mapping, and problem-solving.

So reading is great for young kids, but what Egan and her team discovered was that, on its own, it's not enough to sure up their cognitive development. 

The team found that showing pictures to the child was the most popular activity of the three - 94 percent of infants in the study had someone do this for them - followed by reading, which was done with 80.5 percent of the kids, and 65.9 percent of the mothers reported that they "always" talked to their child while busy.

Using a model that predicted cognitive development based on where each infant was at at nine months, the team found that reading and talking to them both independently contribute to an increase in communication and problem-solving scores, and that showing pictures has a significant effect on communication but not on problem-solving. 

In a result that surprised even the team, their model showed that reading adds 1.35 points to a child's problem-solving score and 0.84 to communication, whereas 'always' talking to them adds 4.11 points to the problem-solving score, and 3.66 to communication. Showing pictures adds 2.23 points to the communication score. The results were the same regardless of factors such as maternal education, gestational age, non-parental care, breastfeeding, attachment and presence of siblings. 

"Reading to them and also talking to them at nine months led to higher vocabulary skills at three years. Also at three years of age, the more days of the week they were read to, the higher their problem solving skills and the higher their vocabulary," Egan told The Sunday Times.

"We would have thought that there might have been a good effect of reading, perhaps more so than talking. But then we were a little surprised that it was having a bit more of an impact."

Source: The Sunday Times