Reading Together to Strengthen Emotional Connection

In early childhood development, we hear so much about what’s measurable—how often children are read to, and how many words they hear by age three—that reading can feel more like a task to check off a list, than a special opportunity to connect. 

It’s true that babies and children have a limitless desire to acquire knowledge, but the benefit of storytime isn’t just cognitive development––it’s also deeper. The rhythm, tone, and sensory-emotional aspects of reading help develop relational reflexes that they’ll use throughout their lives. 

If we shift our attention to connecting by reading with each other, we can open ourselves to the monumental impacts that autonomic emotional connection has on our social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development.

Emotional Connection Feels Good and Has Health Benefits 

We can strengthen our autonomic emotional connections to each other by engaging our emotions and senses together, for example reading emotionally while cozily holding our child in our lap. Our studies in premature infants and their families have shown that this deeply human experience profoundly impacts our health. Autonomic emotional connection protects babies and children against stress, promotes heart, brain, and gut function, improves sleep, and bolsters the immune system. Cognitive and language scores go up, behavioral problems go down, kids are more prosocial and do better in school. 

And because autonomic emotional connection is two-way, parents and other close adults get many of the same benefits we think of as being “for kids”: adults are less depressed and anxious, and both parents and children show better overall physiological regulation. 

How to Help Kids Relax and Enjoy Reading through Storytime

Storytime is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen these pathways of sensory-emotional connection. When there is emotion in the language and tone of voice, you strengthen your connection. This rewarding mutual interaction can touch—and heal—your hearts.

Engage Your Senses

  • You can start before your baby is born! Studies show that if you read a book to a baby in utero over and over, they will respond to that book outside the womb. 
  • Many parents sit their child on their lap, facing out. Instead, try tucking your child into your side. That way, they’ll still be able to see the pictures and words, but importantly, they can look at your face and make eye contact! This helps them to share feelings like excitement with you, and to check how you react when something surprising or scary happens in the story.
  • Sitting together also lets you hug, which can help you both calm down for bedtime, while your bodies learn how comforting reading together can be.
  • Snuggling is a wonderful way to connect while reading. Hold your little one close, breathe in each other’s scents, and kiss their tender head. Let them put their hand on yours as you turn the page; look into each other’s eyes when something surprising happens in the story, and let there be a give-and-take of talking and listening. 
  • If your child interrupts the story to tell you something, pause the story and listen! Discovering what your child is thinking and feeling is a reward for you; it shows you they’re feeling open and expressive. Listening shows them that you really care about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Babies and children look to our faces to help process events in the story. If you’re reading over Zoom with grandparents, remember that it’s important for the child to see their grandparents’ faces, rather than just the pages.

Engage Each Other’s Emotions

  • When you read with emotion, your child will love reading, and it will help you both tap into more feelings, too. 
  • If your child is enthusiastic, match their enthusiasm; if they’re distracted or agitated or fidgety, read with more and more emotion until they match you! If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to cuddle.
  • Children often love to hear the same stories over again, so they can memorize them and parrot them back, “reading” to you. They watch how you react to their gift: seeing your pride in them gives kids confidence. That’s a motivating factor for their future interest in reading. 
  • Read new books, too! Familiarity helps their confidence, but hearing new stories helps expand their knowledge, imagination, and verbal and emotional vocabulary.
  • Read books that are at and above their reading level. Most language development happens between 6-12 months, but language exposure is still very important at all ages. Read things that interest you: your excitement will be contagious. But stay open to re-reading their baby books if they want to revisit them.

Remember: reading to teach works best when you’re reading to connect emotionally. Listen carefully, whether your child responds to the story with an emotional reaction they want to share, or a thought that came up for them, even if it seems unrelated to the story. When you react to their contribution with interest and acceptance, it reinforces thinking, feeling, and sharing.

My father read to me every day until I went to college, and that is something I cherish to this day. I’m grateful for the love and attention he gave me, and for the curiosity and thirst for knowledge he instilled in me. Seeing through the lens of co-regulation becomes generational: when I had my own child, I read with him daily, too. 

Stories connect us, and those connections are essential. They help us become more creative, more caring, more resilient. From a scientific perspective, when we connect with each other, we also promote our learning and health–– right down to the cellular level. I encourage you to read together, starting as early as you can, and continuing to read out loud with each other lifelong. 

Let’s take care of each other,

Martha G. Welch, MD
Director, Nurture Science Program
Columbia University Irving Medical Center