As 3-year-old Foster takes a break from zooming around the carpet with his new car, his mom scoops him up to read. Surrounded by stacks of books at the Central Library, Lauren Child starts reading one that's all about trains.
"This train travels by ..." she reads, pausing.
"Night!" Foster chimes in. He's eager to fill in blanks and discuss the illustrations as they go.
They read like this a lot. Child's mother was a school teacher, so she knew reading was important and read to her son while she was pregnant. Now, they read three books each night as part of their bedtime routine.
"It’s surprising how much he picks up from reading," said Child, "and it’s really impressive."
According to a study out Monday in the journal Pediatrics, he's picking up a lot more than language. The new research suggests that when parents and caregivers read aloud and play with children from birth, there are long-term benefits for how they develop socially and emotionally.
"Reading and play really does change the way your child approaches their feelings, their behavior and, ultimately, their readiness to learn when they get to school," said Alan Mendelsohn, associate professor of pediatrics and population health at New York University Langone Health.
Researchers examined the impact by using a parenting program called the Video Interaction Project, or VIP, with mostly low-income families at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York. During routine checkups, parents and children were video-recorded while reading or playing and a facilitator reviewed the video with the parents, providing feedback and other positive parenting resources for families to take home. The control group received standard pediatric care.
The children who had VIP had lower instances of hyperactivity and aggression as they grew up.
"This is preventing problems before they emerge," he said. "We're working with at birth with families so those problems don't emerge."
Some of the families in the study participated in VIP from the time the child was born until age three, some got a later dose from ages three to five, some got it that whole time, from birth to five and and some did not receive it at all. This allowed them to measure the impact of early and later interventions. For children that participated in the program in infant and toddler years, the impacts on behavior were still seen at age four and a half.
Though this study examines one particular parenting program, the research suggests other methods, like home visiting programs or community-based interventions, could be just as effective. With all the brain research showing the importance of development early years of life, Mendelsohn said he wants pediatricians and policymakers to look at the the slew of checkups during the infant and toddler years as an opportunity to encourage reading and play and help families for years to come.
"As a pediatrician, my thought it always, 'What can I do to prevent?' " said Mendelsohn. "Here, what we’re doing through a program like this is actually doing some prevention, just like we’d do with an immunization, but around behavioral issues that are going to cause problems for schools down the line."
And another message Mendelsohn has for parents: Keep reading and playing with your kids, even after they start school.