“Where everyone is napping,” I read, as my baby crawled off my lap. Soon, he was across the room and out the door. With him gone, who was I reading to now? As cute as The Napping House is, it’s not the book I would pick for myself.
Babies are not easy audiences. Nonetheless, reading to them is essential. The American Pediatric Association appears to agree, with a recommendation to read to children – even babies – every day. While “every day” is tough, it’s still a good goal. But besides remembering to do so in a sleep-addled state, the idea of reading to a squirming baby can be intimating.
From my experience, here are a few tips for reading to very young children:
Keep at it, even when it seems ridiculous: I found the most difficult part of reading to a newborn was feeling like it mattered at all. After all, he didn’t have a clue what text or pictures were, much less a story. But reading out loud at this age is less about understanding a story than finding more opportunities to talk to your child. The sheer amount of words you say to your infant is shown to have a substantial influence on their language development. And it only works for in-person speech – recorded speech, such as on TV, doesn’t have the same effect. As talking to babies often feels like talking to yourself anyway, reading text at least gives you something to do. It also establishes reading as a constant in your child’s life, helping them see books as something as beloved as any toy.
Pick the right types of books: While you could read the Wall St. Journal to newborns and they would still love to hear your voice, picking books that are designed for very young children will engage them more. It will also get their library off to a good start. Like decorating for newborns, books with black and white contrasts and highlights of bright colors are best. In this category, I especially like the book Hello Bugs. Books that feature photographs of other babies or little mirrors are also a big hit, like Baby Faces or That’s Not My Baby. As babies get older, they love touch and feel books. Nice, short books will also be easier to get through with little ones with extremely short attention spans. Sprout pulled out all of those books until he was a toddler, so they have lasting appeal.
Follow the baby’s cues and go at their pace: As babies grow older, they’ll want to “help” turn the pages long before they have any idea when the right time is. Try to follow their pace if possible, even if it means skipping lines or entire pages. Reading shouldn’t become a power struggle. If the baby feels they are in control, they’ll be more engaged and want to read more in the future. This was super-hard for me, especially with books that have specific rhyme or rhythm schemes. But I think it paid off – Sprout learned to turn pages on his own very early, allowing him to enjoy books on his own as well as when we read to him.
Have the books within easy reach: From the beginning, I knew a bookshelf would be an essential piece of furniture for Sprout’s room. Far before he started crawling, its bottom shelf was heavy with board books that were easily accessible. As a result, he always felt as comfortable pulling a book off the shelf as taking out a toy. He knew they were there to enjoy and even be played with. This easy access made it clear that the books were his to do with as he wished, not something imposed by us. As he grew older, it made it possible for him to explore his library independently and choose his favorites for me to read at bedtime. While his current tendency to literally shove books in our faces can be annoying, I never regret making his books accessible and prominent in his bedroom.
Allow babies to use and abuse to books as they wish (mostly): Part of having books accessible to babies is allowing them to do the types of things babies do – mainly, drool and chew on stuff. While I wouldn’t endorse encouraging your kid to chew on books – my mom would die, knowing her concern about sanitation – it won’t kill either them or the book. A few bite marks are to be expected. One of Sprout’s books with a mirror is warped because my little Narcissus kissed his own reflection so many times.
Any other advice for reading to very young children?