Reading with your child is a fun, bonding experience that offers many benefits – the most obvious being the development of child’s language skills and providing an opportunity for them to learn how to read. Beyond boosting their learning potential, parent-child reading also has health benefits, says a recent study. Reading changes their brains for the better.

The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, offer hard evidence that reading feeds young brain development. Led by Dr. John S. Hutton at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the study used functional MRI scans to assess real-time changes in the brains of 19 pre-school children as they listened to stories being read to them.

Parents were asked about “cognitive stimulation,” including their children’s reading habits and how often they were read to at home. Researchers discovered that reading stimulates the side of the brain that helps with mental imagery, understanding, and language processing, and that brain activity, while hearing stories, was higher in the children who were read to at home more often.

“We hope that this work will guide further research on shared reading and the developing brain to help improve interventions and identify children at risk for difficulties as early as possible, increasing the chances that they will be successful in the wonderful world of books,” Dr. Hutton said in an interview.

Studies have also shown that when a mind is consistently stimulated, the progress of mental illness slows. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, about 20 percent of children in the U.S., including pre-school children, suffer from a diagnosable mental illness during a given year. Children are prone to anxiety, ADHD, and other disorders. Reading keeps their brains active and engaged, and can help fend off mental illness.

Further research, conducted by cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis and colleagues from the University of Sussex in England, showed that reading is also a major form of stress relief. The study followed volunteers as they had their stress levels and heart rates increased, and were then tasked with trying a series of stress-reduction methods – with reading surpassing listening to music and going for a walk as being the most effective method. Reading was shown to reduce stress levels by 68 percent, according to the findings.

Since all children experience stress, sometimes significant amounts of it, reading seems like a natural method for easing their tension and anxiety. Again, preschoolers are not immune. Even very young children have worries and concerns. Separation anxiety, for example, is a major stressor among this age group.

Instilling a love of reading in your child can also increase their life expectancy. Research has shown that avid readers live an average of two years longer than those who do not read. Those who read for up to 3.5 hours a week had a 17 percent lower risk of dying over the next 12 years, and people who read more than that were 23 percent less likely.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to read to their children every day, starting at birth. Dr. Hutton’s study notes, “Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers. The quality of cognitive stimulation in the home, especially before school entry, strongly influences achievement and health outcomes.”

The first six years of life are the most important for healthy brain development, but a brain needs stimulation and new experiences to grow cells and make connections. You can have a positive influence on your child’s mental growth. Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. Help them flex their brains with a great story – every single day.

What other ways does reading positively impact your child’s health? Share in the comments!