The One Thing New Parents Often Overlook
After nine months of preparing and planning for their baby, expecting Christian parents often overlook one of the most beneficial things to do once a newborn finally arrives: read the Bible to their infant.
The benefits of reading in general to a child from birth are so well-documented that the American Academy of Pediatrics last year issued a special policy statement for its 62,000 members to actively promote reading to new parents.
But why does it matter if babies hear scripture or Baby Einstein?
New Brains Work Fast
First, the fascinating nuts and bolts of how God wired human brains for processing words and their meanings.
Language is the gateway to knowledge and making meaning of the world around us, including God. The more we know through science about how He made us, the more we appreciate the massive activity and potential within babies from the start.
Due to rapid brain growth in the first years of life, with trillions of connections made between billions of new cells, the latest studies place the most critical brain-building years between zero and three years old.
In one study conducted by Stanford University, researchers concluded that differences among children in their ability to process language can be measured as early as 18 months, and the ability is largely based on the number and context of words a child has heard.
"What we're seeing is the beginning of a developmental cascade," said Anne Fernald, Stanford University associate professor of psychology and the study lead.
"The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their children to learn more quickly," Fernald told the Stanford Report. Scripture certainly offers a richer language.
Word Quality Matters
Recent studies also confirm that the quality of conversations involving the child, and not just quantity of words spoken, is a reliable predictor of a child's vocabulary and I.Q. Television and overhearing unrelated conversations do not have the same benefit.
"It's not just about shoving words in," Temple University researcher Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek told The New York Times. "It's about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone."
Reading together became a favorite ritual after my daughter was born. She was an "awake" baby from day one, and so reading when she got up in the morning and throughout the day became a frequent activity, particularly given the physical limits of a newborn.
During this early time I realized that of course she isn't understanding any of the words, even those of baby books. But she turned her ear to listen to my voice, so I wanted to read actual Scripture with her. Why not share the words that give life? Jesus said his sheep know his voice (John 10).
And God gave humans a spirit of worship from birth. "Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger" (Psalms 8:2).
Parent and Child Grow Together
With their rapid brain development, babies are also learning "to give and receive love; to roll, crawl, stand, walk, and run; to talk, joke, rhyme, and sing," the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families notes.
Isn't that just like God? He outfits a new soul, according to His special plan (Psalm 139), with the resources to connect with Him and others from the very first day of life. Babies are preset, so to speak, to learn best from the people who love them most, including God.
"Language is the fuel for a child's mind and heart," says education expert and grandmother Lynda Greene. "This is important for all adults who are nurturing the intellectual and spiritual development of the little ones they cherish."
When parents read scripture aloud to a child, they also nurture their own faith. Whispering the words of Jesus in an infant's ears can give much needed reassurance in what can otherwise be an unpredictable time in the early years of parenting.
When my daughter was an infant and toddler, I often read to her a beautifully illustrated adult translation of Psalm 23. The passage became a great source of comfort to me knowing how God was watching over my little lamb.
Once babies grow and start to enjoy books on their own, they start to participate in the selection and ritual. Sometimes, they'll even pull out their special Bible version and read it alongside, while mom or dad read theirs.
It is never too soon to read scripture to your child, and hopefully the practice helps lay a firm foundation of love for God and his Word that stays with them, forever.