Early childhood reading brings ‘lifelong rewards’ and is tied to better mental health

A baby is never too young to be introduced to books, be it in the cot, a waterproof one in the bath, or a buggy book on trips out. But learning to read as a child is quite a feat – the fact children acquire reading at all astounds me.

But the benefits of their early efforts are only just becoming apparent thanks to research from UK and Chinese scientists.

Lifelong rewards for children who begin reading early are a tendency to do better in academic tests and have better mental health as adolescents.

The study of more than 10,000 young US adolescents found 12 hours a week is the optimal amount of reading for improving young brains.

Childhood and adolescent brains are developing fast, so it’s a crucial time for establishing habits that encourage and promote brain health and cognitive development.

Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Warwick, and China’s Fudan University looked at data from the Adolescent Brain and ­Cognitive Development (ABCD) study in the US.

They analysed cognitive tests, mental and behavioural assessments and brain scans, comparing young people who began reading for pleasure at a relatively early age – between two and nine years old – to those who began reading later or not at all.

Of the 10,243 children studied, just under a half (48%) had little experience of reading for pleasure or didn’t begin reading until later in their childhood.

The other half had spent between three and 10 years reading for pleasure. The team found a strong link between reading for pleasure at an early age and positive performance in adolescence on verbal and memory tests, and speech development. School academic achievement was also better.

These children also had better mental well-being, as assessed by parents and teachers, showing fewer signs of stress and depression.

Also, researchers found they had better attention spans, fewer ­behavioural problems such as ­aggression and rule-breaking, and they spent less time on screens and slept for longer. Brain scans from this adolescent group showed larger total brain areas and volumes, and larger brain regions that play critical roles in cognitive functions, improved mental health, behaviour and attention.

Professor Barbara Sahakian, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said: “Reading isn’t just a pleasurable ­experience – it’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress.

“But on top of this, we found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being.”

Treasure in heaven.