People often ask: “when should I start reading to my baby?” The answer? Yesterday.
Lots of people don’t realize how important it is to read to babies and often wait to start reading until their toddler can speak. We get the thought process – why talk to something that doesn’t talk back? However, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, an “earlier age of initiation of reading aloud with a child has been associated with better preschool language skills and increased interest in reading”.1 So while it may seem strange, reading to your baby is one of the best things you can do for her overall development.
Basically, there is nothing but upside to reading to your baby from the moment of birth. After meeting her new family, taking a nap, and having a few good cries, story time should be one of your baby’s first experiences in life. You can even pack a picture book in your hospital bag! While reading a book together might not seem as important as letting your new baby sleep and feed, there really is a sense of urgency for introducing books to children because the younger the baby, the greater the positive effects of reading. According to the AAP, reading out loud with your baby increases the richness of the vocabulary and the complexity of the syntax to which she is exposed.1
The consequences of not reading out loud are significant. In the United States, one in three children start kindergarten without the language skills they need in order to learn how to read.1 As these students grow up, things only get worse. By the end of the third grade, about 66% of these students fail to develop reading proficiency.1 Over a four year period, the amount of students behind on literacy doubles to two out of every three kids. Doubles!
The reason our children fall behind is largely tied to the amount of words and books they were exposed to between their birth and their third birthday. According to Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s groundbreaking study, “60% of the variance in the vocabulary of children 8 or 9 years of age can be explained by their exposure to language at home, before they were 3 years old”. 1 That’s to say that the reading environment children are exposed to early on in life sets the trajectory for the years to come.
You might think that just talking to your baby does as much good, or more, as reading to them. And to some extent, that’s true – engaging your baby with words is critical to her overall development. However, there are certain benefits that only reading can provide your baby. Take it from the scientists themselves. According to researchers Barbara N. Kupetz and Elise Jepson Green, early exposure to books is key in developing visual recognition abilities, enhancing listening skills, and developing language.2 By reading illustrated books together (at this age, the best books have few to no words and bright, engaging pictures), your baby will get to practice all three of these skills.
Story time also contributes to building sensory awareness, sparking the imagination, and establishing physical closeness between parent and child. These are also all critical components of the baby’s emotional and social development.2 The close, personal contact that you share while reading together can also double as an opportunity for you to have some skin-to-skin contact, which is known to have positive health benefits for you and your baby.3
In other words, exposing your child to books from the very beginning is key to their physical, intellectual, and emotional development. Through their experience with books, babies begin to learn how to communicate with adults and interact in the social world.
If the idea of reading to your newborn was not the first thing on your to-do list, especially when dealing with sleepless nights, feeding schedules, and all the rest that comes with being a new parent, you are not alone. The idea of adding storytime to your already over-packed daily routine can seem overwhelming. However, we’re willing to bet that once you’re equipped with the understanding of how beneficial reading is for your baby, after a few tries making time to read will become the highlight of your day.
When reading to infants, it’s good to keep in mind that they aren’t capable of paying attention for much more than 90 seconds.4 Therefore, it’s great to look for books with colorful illustrations. Though this can help grab your baby’s attention, don’t be discouraged if she doesn’t seem to care for more than a moment. It’s a developmentally appropriate reaction. As your baby grows, she will likely want to chew on the book, which is also perfectly normal (and why board books were invented).
The best ingredient for success, though, is how you approach the reading session. Let your positive attitude toward reading show. Your baby will see that you are happy, causing them to associate enjoyment with the activity as well.
Another reading tip when dealing with infants is to read them the books and articles you like to read. At this stage, babies benefit simply from hearing the rhythm of spoken language, and your voice has a calming effect.
One of my favorite parenting mantras is “Read early and often.” The sooner you introduce books into your baby’s life, the better off they will be developmentally. Try to fit books into various parts of your daily routine to maximize the reading time you share together. Just make sure that your baby is enjoying the process. If the interaction feels forced, you risk creating a negative association with books for your child – the opposite of storytime’s intended effect. Reading together is meant to be enjoyable, and if you need a break sometimes, that’s absolutely okay. You deserve it.
It isn’t always easy, especially with an infant, but books and talking are vital nutrition for your baby’s developmental growth. Happy reading!
- Council on Early Childhood. “Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice.” American Academy of Pediatrics (2014): 404-409. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-1384
- Kupetz, Barbara N., and Green Elise Jepson. “Sharing Books with Infants and Toddlers: Facing the Challenges.” Young Children 52, no. 2 (1997): 22-27.
- Newman, Jack. “The Importance of Skin to Skin Contact,” International Breastfeeding Centre. Last modified 2009.
- Rothman, Lily. “Read to Your Baby, Say Doctors – But Which Books?” Time. June 24, 2014.