Many parents already know that they should be reading to their babies, which is great! But many struggle with figuring out just how to do it so it doesn’t feel like they’re talking to a rock. We get it. When your audience is three months old and can’t speak, how do you know that reading is actually making a difference? Good thing there’s a lot of smart people out there that have dedicated years to answering this question.
Before anything else, you should know that even if your baby isn’t yet able to physically or verbally respond to your words, reading out loud to him actually works wonders for his brain development. It’s magical. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development”.2 By reading to your child from an early age, you’re jump-starting the process of building language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that will last a lifetime.
Before children can take charge of their own social experiences outside the home, almost everything they learn comes from the early ecosystem they are exposed to at home. We as a society have tasked parents the primary responsibility of socializing their children. Therefore, if we don’t do essential things like share books with our children or don’t do so on a regular basis, we put their intellectual future in jeopardy. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, authors of “The Early Catastrophe,” measured how word exposure affects speaking and reading skills in children. Shockingly, they found that by age three, some children heard 30 million less words than others.5 This word gap translates to a significant disparity in language and literacy levels in children once they reach the third grade. This disparity is so significant that 60% of American children’s vocabulary sizes at 8 or 9 years of age could be explained by their exposure to language at home, before they were 3 years old.2
In other words, words are the perfect nutrition for a child’s intellectual and emotional growth.
To break this down, we want to dive into some reading tips tailored to different ages and developmental stages. Melissa Balmain from American Baby Magazine recently published a neat list of tips for reading to babies and toddlers at different developmental stages. Here’s a nice summary.
Birth to 6 months: This might sound odd, but look for books without any words in them. At this stage, babies are still developing their vision, so books with bright, engaging illustrations are best. Instead of reading words on a page, describe the images your baby sees and make up your own stories to go along with the illustrations.
Another way to share books with your infant is to read him the newspaper or that novel you’ve been meaning to pick up. When your baby is that young, the biggest benefit of reading is that he gets to hear the sound of your voice, which helps him develop his own language skills.
7 to 12 months: When they reach half a year of age, some babies may be able to pick up some of the words you use while reading. Good books to read are ones that reflect your baby’s own life, so he has more context to understand these words (like Mama, Dada, dog, baby). At this stage, your baby will probably want to grab at/chew on/drool all over the book you read together, so try reading board books or books made of cloth for more durability.
13 to 18 months: By now, it’s likely that your baby will start interacting with you more during the reading process. Give him more context to the story by adding your own introductions and asking questions about the text. (“Look at the cow! What does the cow say? Moooo!”)
19 to 24 months: At this point, many toddlers start craving routine, resulting in your 20 month-old asking you to read the same book, over and over (and over) again. Even if you’re craving some new reading material, give in to his demands. This repetition helps him solidify his understanding of the book’s vocabulary. Let him help you in the reading experience. He may want to “read” the book to you or change up the plot a little bit.
As your child grows, there are a few tips that apply to all developmental stages. First, the biggest takeaway is that reading is really, really important. Did we mention that? Make time to read with your baby every day, not just at bedtime (though that is a great place to start). If you can, put children’s books all over your house so that a story is never more than an arm’s reach away. If your toddler is able to be safe in the bathtub, reading stories at bath time can be a fun way to get more book time in.
With that said, try to focus on quality over quantity. If your child is clearly rebelling against this morning story session, forcing him to continue to listen to you is unlikely to have a positive impact. Don’t force extra reading sessions if your baby can’t handle them at the moment. Some days are bound to be more reading-heavy than others, and that’s just fine.3 Try reading when your child seems alert and interested. Also, choose books that are not only developmentally appropriate for your child, but also enjoyable for you. If you are bored by the story, you won’t enjoy the activity as much, and it will probably seem more difficult.4
When you are reading, make sure that your child can see the pictures. Once a baby can hold up his own head, the pictures become just as valuable as the text. Use the illustrations to start conversations with your child.2 While reading out loud, use the pitch in your voice to add emotion and expression to the story. Try giving different characters different voices. This will make the experience more interesting for your child. Encourage your child to respond to the book by reacting positively to all of his attempts at participating, such as pointing, turning pages, or verbalizing.4
Finally, it’s key to try to always portray reading in a positive light. Babies learn by mimicking, so if you express your own excitement and joy about reading, he will come to associate your reading sessions with happy times, setting the stage for his own love for reading down the road.
- Balmain, Melissa. “Age-by-Age Guide to Reading to Your Baby.” Parents. 2002.
- Council on Early Childhood. “Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice.” American Academy of Pediatrics 134, no. 2 (2014): 404-409. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-1384
- Guinagh, Barry J., and Jester R. Emile. “How Parents Read to Children.” Theory Into Practice 11, no. 3 (1972): 171-77.
- Kupetz, Barbara N., and Green Elise Jepson. “Sharing Books with Infants and Toddlers: Facing the Challenges.” Young Children 52, no. 2 (1997): 22-27.
- Hart, Betty, and Todd R. Risley. 2003. “The Early Catastrophe. The 30 Million Word Gap.” American Educator 27(1): 4–9.