Parents, prepare your funny voices. Reading picture books with young children is an essential part of nurturing a healthy brain, according to new research.

Two separate studies have explored how listening to books boosts thinking skills, helping children evolve into good readers and students.

"Early reading is more than just a nice thing to do with kids," said Dr. John Hutton, a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, to The New York Times. "(Reading) really does have a very important role to play in building brain networks that will serve children long-term as they transition from verbal (communication) to reading" on their own.

Hutton led one of the two new studies, which used brain scans to explore which areas of a child's brain light up when he or she listens to stories. Nineteen 3- to 5-year-olds were tested, and the results were published earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics (paywall).

Children who were regularly read to had higher levels of brain activity in a region associated with the integration of sound and visual stimuli, the study reported, than did less literary participants. Researchers said the results illustrate how engaging with books at a young age leads to better imagination and reading skills in elementary school and beyond.

"The more you read to your child the more you help the neurons in this region to grow and connect in a way that will benefit the child in the future," said one of Hutton's co-authors, Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, to CNN.

The other study, published August 4 by Psychological Science (paywall), analyzed the vocabulary used in picture books, comparing these words to a list of common phrases associated with parents of young kids.

"Books contain a more diverse set of words than child-directed speech. … This would suggest that children who are being read to by caregivers are hearing vocabulary words that kids who are not being read to are probably not hearing," said the lead author, Jessica Montag, to the Times.

The two studies come a little more than a year after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging health care providers to speak with parents about the importance of reading with their kids. AAP leaders said even babies benefit from engaging with brightly colored books and the extra cuddle time that comes with bedtime reading, Reuters reported at the time.

Although few people questioned this call to action, the policy statement reopened debates about the disadvantages of being raised in a low-income home. Research has shown that parents in lower-income brackets spend less time reading to their kids, likely because they have less time to spare.

"The 2011 to 2012 National Survey of Children's Health found that only one-third of U.S. children living in poverty were read to daily from birth to five years of age," compared to 60 percent of children from higher-income families, Reuters reported.

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