Parents often wonder to themselves when to start reading to baby and I cannot emphasise enough how important books and reading are in your child's development. Books and reading to your children every day is one of my mantras and in my opinion it is never too early to introduce books to your little one.
With the advent of modern technology and our obsession with screens, more people are deferring to the internet to get their information and many parents are sadly relying on this new medium to entertain their children.
However, you can never substitute the intimacy of reading a book with your child. You can use books to discuss with your little one stages in their development, like potty training and starting nursery school, in an non threatening way. Books are a fun way to learn about the world, emotions, science and fantasy as they develop your child imagination. In fact their benefits are endless. So when do you start and what are the best books for your baby and what are the benefits of starting early?
Benefits of reading to your newborn
There are many benefits of reading to your baby to help with their emotional, language and sensory development. It will lead to them learning about numbers, letters, colours and shapes in a fun way. It will develop their listening and memory skills as well as giving them vital information about the world around them.
Babies have been listening to your voice in the womb and they find it calming to listen to you read to them. In addition reading to your baby and exposing them to books from an early age prepares them for the ritual of reading later on. Although they can not understand what you are saying at this point they will begin to understand the tone and inflections in your voice.
Boosts Brain Power
Studies have shown that the earlier you expose children to books the better it is for their brain development. It has also been proven that babies that were read to as newborns have a larger vocabulary and more advanced maths skills than children that were not introduced to books so early on.
Focusing on simple shapes, letters and colours over the first 3 months will help your young baby start to recognise and differentiate between the different images they see. Talk to them and explain what they are seeing.
When you read to your baby they will begin to understand that the spoken word conveys emotions and that certain sounds mean certain things, like when you make animal sounds for example. As they get older they will be able to learn about the emotions of the characters in the books you are reading to them by the intonation of your voice and learn about sadness, concern, joy and happiness.
Most of all reading is a positive experience for babies. When you are reading to your baby they feel close to you and safe while listening to your voice and this will continue to be the case as they grow. Reading with you will become a calming, comforting experience and they will then always connect reading and books with this positive experience.
Best books for babies
Even newborn babies can benefit from simple books that introduce them to shapes, shade and light, textures and sounds. As they grow, babies will delight in books that have bright colours, that crinkle and squeak. Later on they will have favourite stories that they will want you to read again and again and delight in the surprise and anticipation or a story as if it was the first time they have heard it. They will also love to start telling the story with you as although they cannot technically read as yet, they will want to finish sentences for you and fill in the missing words.
Be sure to check out my post on my top baby books to know what books I recommend to get your library started!
What should I read to my newborn?
Baby books in black and white are best for this age until their eyesight develops. Newborns can only focus within a 6-8 inch range and this is ideal for when you are holding them close to cuddle and feed and they can concentrate on your face. Although it is slightly unclear exactly what colours newborn babies can see, it is believed that they can see best in black, white and grey.
It is never too young to introduce a baby to books. Try to choose one with bold images or simple patterns and shapes that will help your baby to learn to focus. It is important to talk to your baby about the pictures and describe the patterns and shapes to them. They will love to hear your voice and you can take their hand and trace the shapes as your talk to them all the time teaching them even at this early stage to enjoy the wonder of books and expand their concentration.
From 4 months old upwards your baby will now be showing more interest in books in general. They will start to grab and hold them and some of the best babies books for this age are made of cloth as your baby will try and chew and suck on them as well as look at them. Choose books with bright colours and images for your baby to focus on. As always explain what they are seeing and make appropriate animal noises.
Books that you can clip onto the car seat or buggy are a good first book for baby as they are great entertainment when they are able to reach and grab. Books that crinkle and have different textures are good as your baby will probably be entertaining themselves with these books and in the absence of your voice, offering textures and sounds is a good substitute.
Some of the best baby books for babies are board books as they are robust enough to handle baby grabbing and chewing. They can be wiped clean and also allow your baby to try and learn to turn pages.From about 7 months onward books with one object per page are best with the subject matter being about meaningful things in their life such as mummy, daddy, dog, cat, bottle and ball for example will help them relate to what they are seeing on the page.
By interactive books I mean books with flaps or sliding partitions and pop ups. There is no need for hi tech interactive books at this age and I would introduce them with great caution later on. There is plenty of opportunity to expose your children to interactive toys and I feel they only have a limited benefit when it comes to books and reading. However, simple pop up books or ones with hidden figures under flaps are equally stimulating and fun for your young baby.
Simple Story Books
Although for infants reading is mostly about the tone of your voice and cuddling up to you, there are some excellent books to read to babies with simple stories for little ones to understand. From about 1 year old you can introduce these more complex books with stories for babies. The sillier and more playful you are the funnier your little one will find it and they should now be able to mimic animal noises themselves if you point to them on the page.
Babies of this age will also enjoy rhyming books and stories. The repetitive sound of a rhyme can also help teach your child to predict what comes next which in turn helps build memory skills. You can also now start to ask questions about what they are seeing on the page, inviting them to participate in the reading experience.
I think musical books have a part in your babies introduction to books and reading, but I would advise moderation. They are a great way for babies to learn nursery rhymes and lullabies and they can help in hand-eye coordination when they learn that pressing a button causes a tune to be played.
So I would suggest choosing your musical books carefully and wisely. Try for ones that are more low key and not to over interactive as this can distract from the rhyme, story or lullaby.
Many books teach animal sounds and count out numbers or say letters but I would not recommend these for very young babies as hearing your voice is by far the best.
When it comes to audio books again I would say they do have a place in your child's development. I would recommend avoiding Ebooks, however, as they have too many bells and whistles that distract your baby or young child from concentrating on the story.
It is fine to play an audio book in the car for example or to play one for your baby when you are busy and you want them to sit quietly. Audiobooks are not substitute for you reading to your baby but they will learn to listen to an audio book and it will develop their imagination.
As they grow your child may like listening to an audiobook to go to sleep. My son went through a period of being afraid of the dark and listening to an audio book while he fell asleep proved to be very comforting. He remembers to this day listening to those stories.
How to read to your baby
Reading to babies does not always come easily to everyone. Most importantly it must be fun and you need to enjoy the story yourself. If you find the book irritating then don't read it as you are less likely to be enthusiastic in your delivery. The association your baby makes between the things he loves i.e. you or your partners closeness and voice and his favourite stories will mean that he establishes a life long positive association to reading.
Obviously reading to a newborn requires a simple explanation of what is on the page, with little to no immediate response from your baby. The gently tone of your voice as you cuddle and look at the book are all that is required at this point.
As your baby grows and their eyesight improves they will start to interact with you and the books they are introduced to. When reading to your baby at this stage you need to make the page come alive by changing the tone of your voice or using motions and sound effects.
Repetition will help your baby to build their language skills so books that repeat the same phrase over and over again will appeal to your little one. Even if your baby is unable to answer question yet you can still ask them and then point and answer yourself. Comprehension in babies comes way before their ability to speak what they are thinking.
Nursery rhyme books are also great books to start reading to you baby as you can repeat the familiar rhymes learnt during other times of the day, such as bath time or when you are out and about.
The more you can read the better, but little and often is better than trying to read beyond your babies attention span. Just taking a few minutes every now and then is enough in the early days. As they grow let them take the lead and if they start to lose interest in a particular book or story don't force it or make them sit until you have finished. Chances are if you have introduced healthy reading habits from the beginning your young child will be bringing books to you to read to them.
From 12 -18 months let your little one choose the book when they are able to do so . It is important that reading is seen as a choice and not a chore.
As always you should lead by example. If your children see you reading they are more likely to see this as something that everyone does and having a house full of books will always encourage an inquisitive mind to look for answers, information and entertainment as they grow. Show your children that books can be a source of knowledge and relaxation as an alternative to the internet and screens.
Although books should be readily available for reading throughout the day, it is a good idea to have specific reading times especially at bedtime when they are an essential part of the bedtime routine. Reading is a calming activity so if you sense your baby could do with some down time, sitting and reading a book is a good way to bring the energy levels down. Sit is a comfy chair have them sit on your lap and get cosy with a favourite book and enjoy.
When can I teach my baby to read?
It is never too early to teach your baby to 'read'. But in truth this is not really teaching them to read but rather exposing them to books and language. Just introducing your newborn to books is the best way to start your child on the path to reading. Reading and enjoying books should not be a chore for either you or your child, in fact there are many benefits of reading and sharing books with your baby from a very young age. The American Academy of Paediatrics puts it very nicely when it states 'Children who are read to during infancy and preschool years have better language skills.....In addition parents who spend time reading to their children create nurturing relationships which is important for a child's cognitive, language and social-emotional development.'
So although I do not believe in pushing your baby to 'read' before they are ready, I do believe that early exposure to books encourages your child to have a healthy, positive and rewarding relationship with books and language as they grow.
Providing your child with daily exposure to books from an early age and encouraging healthy reading habits in an age appropriate way, is what is best in my view, and will put your child on the right and happy path to reading.