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The Lifelong Benefits of Reading to Babies

The Lifelong Benefits of Reading to Babies

Though many parents may not realize it, they should be reading to babies as early as possible. There are numerous early childhood education and lifelong benefits to reading to babies. Early childhood education and reading experts share the numerous benefits of read to babies, and give suggestions for books to reach at each stage of early childhood development.

When my older daughter was born, I ran out and bought a bunch of things I assumed were necessities, such as a wet-wipe heater (which only made the wipes a smidge warmer than they already were) and a rattle (even though Clara’s little hands were in mittens to prevent her from accidentally scratching herself).

“She doesn’t need that stuff,” my mom laughed. “She just needs food and shelter and love.”

Experts would agree, but they’d probably add one more item to that short list: books. That’s right—even the very smallest children can benefit profoundly from story time. Snuggling over a good read actually helps your baby learn to read you and vice versa, and can yield a host of brain-boosting benefits, both now and later. Here are some reasons to start amassing a kiddie library, and using it daily.

RELATED: How Can You Promote Literacy at Home?

0-6 Months: Building Bonds Through Reading to Baby

At the very beginning of life, “reading time is really about bonding with a parent or caregiver,” says Rina P. Collins, owner of Book Nook, an early literacy studio with two Manhattan locations. Set aside time once or twice a day to break out a book. It’s also a chance for you to practice your reading technique. Not only do you have to get used to reciting aloud (it can take a while not to feel silly saying things like “and then the bunny went to the market!”) but “you’re learning how to hold your baby in the crook of one arm while holding the book with the other,” notes Pam Allyn, founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative.

Your child may not spend lots of time checking out the book’s pages—he isn’t even focusing that well yet—but he’s looking at the faces you make, and starting to associate them with emotions. He’s also listening. “You’re transmitting the grammatical structures and rhythm of language,” Allyn says. Go for books that are rich in sounds, such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. Also select some books with black-and-white contrast, since that’s what infants see best. One great choice: Hello Baby by Roger Priddy.

Around 4 months, your baby can see pictures more clearly, Collins notes. She’s mesmerized by other babies’ faces, so try reading Global Babies by The Global Fund for Children or a similar book. “And as your baby gets more accustomed to the rhythms of language, he’ll enjoy texts that have an element of repetition,” says Roslyn Haber, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Touro Graduate College of Education in Manhattan. Nursery-rhyme books are great choices now, as are other books with repetitive turns of phrase. “We started reading Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear a lot at this point,” Collins says. 

Rest assured, all this reading is doing lots of good. According to a study presented last spring at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, reading to babies as young as just 6 months of age results in more robust vocabularies and better early literacy skills by age 4. The more vividly parents share books, the better: “We asked whether they were engaging in reading that involved talking about the pictures and emotions, and having a conversation around the story,” says Carolyn Cates, the study’s lead author. So go ahead—comment on the characters, make funny faces as you read, and modulate your voice up and down.

7-12 Months: Children Become Tactile Readers

Speaking of vocabulary, the second half of the first year is a great time to start building your baby’s knowledge of words. “We put out lots of board books that just had pictures and basic words, like ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy,’” Collins says. Roger Priddy’s First 100 Words Lift-the-Flap introduces vocabulary staples while also satisfying curious little fingers. In fact, you may notice your child starting to handle books a lot more around this time—“my son liked taking his finger and rubbing the page and moving his hand all around it,” Collins remembers. Dr. Haber agrees: “this is a very exploratory stage. It’s great to get books that have a lot of tactile fabrics in them,” she says.

By this point, you’ve probably figured out reading to your baby is a way of getting to know her personality. Does he act excited when you pull out a book about dinosaurs? Disinterested in the book about cats? Her expressions, gestures, and even the sounds she makes will provide clues. Since he can see colors very well now, the bright hues of Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, La La La! may appeal to him. Rich language patterns may grab her attention too—at least for a short while. A book such as More More More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams fits the bill.

Once your baby starts to crawl, put books in baskets, so they’ll be at eye level, Allyn recommends. If he shows a preference for certain subjects, stick with them (“Oh, you liked that book about trucks? Let’s get another book about them!”). As she nears her first birthday, your little one will also have a better understanding of the overall concept of a story, so feel free to try a book with more of a plot, such as Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day.

Another major concept your child is starting to grasp is the idea that he belongs to a family. Try reading some stories that highlight family relationships, such as the Max and Ruby series by Rosemary Wells, featuring brother-and-sister rabbits. “Max and Ruby are recurring characters in the books, so you and your baby can keep reading about them as your child gets older,” Allyn points out. Also highlight books that talk about where its main character fits into the world, for example The New Baby by Mercer Mayer. Talk to your baby about how there are many different types of families. And make sure to throw in some books just for silly fun: Allyn is a big fan of Acoustic Rooster by Kwame Alexander, chronicling the adventures of a jazz-loving rooster and his barnyard band.

RELATED: The Benefits of Creating a 'Yes' Space

13-18 Months: Learning How Books Work

“One to two years of age is when children’s language is absolutely exploding,” Allyn says. Your baby can appreciate continuity, so introduce her to authors you can return to again and again. These include Mo Willems, author of the acclaimed Pigeon series, and Charlotte Zolotow, who wrote The Seashore Book and dozens of others. “Your child is ready to have books that have multiple sentences, are longer, and have more advanced pictures,” Collins says. Rhyming books, such as Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown, may capture his attention. Tickle your baby’s funny bone by making exaggerated expressions and noises—you may be rewarded with some extra enthusiasm and delicious giggles. Where your baby used to be cradled in your arms for story time, she may happily settle into your lap. Make it easy for him to pick up books on his own, too; Collins recommends using low dish-display shelves and filling them with kiddie volumes.

Try finding books that relate to something your child loves in real life: If she’s a fan of unicorns, for example, read her a storybook that features one. And be prepared to let your little one take the lead—she may no longer be content to have you hold the book, insisting she keep a grip on it and turn the pages instead. “Be really patient,” Allyn advises. “It’s important that she learns how books work—even if that means [she is] turning the pages backwards as well as forwards.”

With all his squirminess, your child may often be reluctant to go to bed. Make books your secret weapon. Soothing titles such as Night-Night, by Leslie Patricelli, and DK Publishing’s Baby Touch and Feel Bedtime can become part of your evening or naptime rituals. The comforting images and soothing words, read in a soft voice, might just do the trick and help your child (and you!) catch some much-needed zzz’s.

19-24 Months: Books Become Favorites

Since you’ve exposed your baby to so many wonderful books by now, don’t be surprised if she has a favorite or two—and wants you to read them again and again. Oh, and again. Yes, it can test your patience a little, but it’s really a good thing for your budding reader. “It links that book to comfort and familiarity,” Dr. Haber says. Don’t be surprised, either, if your child picks up a book and throws it down, or even hurls it several feet across the room. It doesn’t mean your little one is destined to grow up to be the terror of the local library! “At this time, he’s exploring space, and throwing the book is part of that,” Dr. Haber explains. Instead of scolding him, you can calmly tell him to treat books with care. “You can pick the book back up and say, ‘That’s the book about the bird taking a vacation! Should we read it again?’” Dr. Haber suggests.

Of course, it’s good to introduce new books whenever you can. At this age, they can have simple lessons, such as Please and Thank You by Richard Scarry and the old favorite, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. Sing-song books, with hand gestures you can try together, will often be a big hit too—read The Wheels on the Bus by Jerry Smith. Almost any book can inspire some back-and-forth now. Try pointing to a duck or house and asking your child what it is; she may surprise you with a one-word answer you can expand on (“Right! That’s the duck who likes to play in the mud!”)

Just as your child may be mimicking some of your day-to-day activities, he may now mirror the way you read. “Many kids this age start trying to hold a book and read it aloud to their stuffed animals,” Allyn says. Your little one may “read” by babbling, using the same inflections you sometimes do during story time. It’s hilarious to watch, and touching, too. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And it shows that when it comes to a healthy love of reading, you and your child are on the same page.

RELATED: How to Help Develop Your Child's Reading Proficiency?


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Deborah Skolnik

Author: Deborah Skolnik, a graduate of Cornell University, lives in Westchester with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys writing, cooking, and gardening. See More

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