Shared Reading and Attachment Theory: What You Need to Know Now

Father reading to baby smallIn an endearing scene in the movie Three Men and a Baby, Tom Selleck reads the results of the dog racing scores from the newspaper to the infant who’s been left in his charge. The other adults present at the time berate him for corrupting the baby girl, but, as it turns out, Selleck was spot-on. Here’s the thing: whether we’re reading from a newspaper, a phone book, or James Joyce, even the youngest infant learns to associate the act of shared reading with the feeling of being loved.

I think we would all agree that feeling loved is one of our most primal needs as humans, but how does that play a role in attachment? And how do experts define attachment?

Psychology Today defines attachment thus:

“The emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver is the means by which the helpless infant gets primary needs met. It then becomes the engine of subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development. The early experience of the infant stimulates growth of neural pathways that will sculpt enduring patterns of response to many things.

“The attachment experience affects personality development, particularly a sense of security, and research shows that it influences the ability to form stable relationships throughout life. Neuroscientists believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to setting it in motion and a hormone to foster the process, oxytocin.

Mother reading to baby 3 small

“The genius of the attachment system is that it provides the infant’s first coping system; it sets up in the infant’s mind a mental representation of the caregiver, one that is wholly portable and can be summoned up as a comforting mental presence in difficult moments. Because it allows an infant to separate from the caregiver without distress and begin to explore the world around her, attachment contains within it the platform for the child’s ability to survive independently.”

In other words, a child’s future happiness, coping abilities, and survival skills are all linked to its earliest experiences in attachment. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this early window of developmental potential in a child’s life.

Leana Morgan Hampton, in her thesis, “Maternal-Infant Attachment Through Reading: What Do Mothers Understand?” studied mothers aged fifteen to forty-four and their infants. Astonishingly, most of the mothers had no idea how critical a role reading to their infant child played in bonding and attachment. Hampton’s project showed new mothers the importance of reading daily with their infant, and measurable benefits to both mother and child were noted.

Mother reading to baby 1 small

Maryanne Wolfe, professor of child development at Tufts University, the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, has much to say about the manifold benefits of shared reading from infancy.

Here are a few gems from her book:

  • “The association between hearing written language and feeling loved provides the best foundation for this long process, (emergent or early literacy) and no cognitive scientist or educational researcher could have designed a better one.” (Wolf, 2008, p 83)
  • “Imagine the following scene. A small child sits in rapt attention on the lap of a beloved adult, listening to words that move like water, words that tell of fairies, dragon, and giants in faraway places never before imagined. The young child’s brain prepares to read far earlier than one might ever suspect, and makes use of almost all the raw material of early childhood, every perception, concept, and word.” (Wolf, 2008, p 81)
  • “Decade after decade of research shows that the amount of time a child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read is a good predictor of the level of reading attained years later. Why? Consider more carefully the scene we just described: a very young child is sitting, looking at colorful pictures, listening to ancient tales and new stories, learning gradually that the lines on the page make letters, letters make words, words make stories, and stories can be read over and over again.” (Wolf, 2008, p 82)
  • “The next step in the process involves a growing understanding of pictures, as the child becomes able to recognize the visual images illustrating a few books . . . Underlying this development is a visual system that is fully functional by six months, an attention system that has a long road ahead to maturation, and a conceptual system that grows by leaps and bounds each day.” (Wolf, 2008, p 83)
  • “This child already understands that particular pictures go with particular stories and that stories convey feelings that go with the words—feelings that range from sadness to fear to happiness. Through stories and books, she is beginning to learn a repertoire of emotions. Stories and books are a safe place for her to begin to try these emotions on for herself and are therefore a potentially powerful contributor to her development . . . Learning about the feelings of others is not simple for three- to five-year-olds.” (Wolf, 2008, p 85 – 86)
  • “As every teacher knows, emotional engagement is the tipping point between leaping into the reading life . . . An enormously important influence on the development of comprehension in childhood is what happens after we remember, predict, and infer: we feel, we identify, and in the process, we understand more fully and can’t wait to turn the page. The child . . . often needs heartfelt encouragement from teachers, tutors, and parents to make a stab at more difficult reading material.” (Wolf, 2008, p 132)

Mother reading to baby 2 small

  • “Parents should be encouraged to help children name letters whenever they appear ready, and the same principle applies to “reading” what is called environmental print—familiar words and signs in the child’s environment such as a stop sign, a box of cereal, the child’s name, and the names of siblings and friends . . . Gradually, each child in most literate cultures begins to acquire a repertoire of frequently seen letters and words before ever learning to write these letters.” (Wolf, 2008, p 93 – 94)
  • “Children move very gradually from an awareness of what makes up a word in a sentence to syllables inside a word (e.g., “sun-ny”), until finally, each individual phoneme inside a word can be segmented (e.g. “s”, “u”, “n”) A child’s awareness of discrete sounds and phonemes in a word is both a critical component and an outgrowth of learning to write and learning to read.” (Wolf, 2008, p 98 – 99)

When a baby is born, often a parent’s world turns upside down—little sleep, new routines, new responsibilities, and the mysteries of trying to interpret the communications of a tiny person who can only make loud noises can overwhelm any person. It can be easy to parent from crisis-management mode, rather than project-management, i.e., looking at the long-term effects of choices made at the moment. Let’s each make a difference for new parents and their infants: share beloved books, replete with illustrations, with both. Parents, hold your infant in a loving, tender embrace while reading from a brightly colored picture book with expression and love and witness the baby’s immediate response—the soothing, the engagement, the curiosity, and the beauty of the bonding and attachment process in action. You’ll be glad you did, and the effects can last a lifetime.

Cardboard Box Adventures Picture Books are great for shared reading and help to establish a strong pre-literacy foundation. Check out the new CBA Catalog for a full list award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators.



O’ Keefe, L. (2014, June 24). Parents who read to their children nurture more than literary skills.

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