Parents often want to know when they should start to read to their children, and the simplest response to this is: now. However old your child is, it is never too early (or too late) to give them a love of books and reading that will last the rest of their lives.
Many dads-to-be have discovered the joy of reading to their children in-utero. This gives the dad a role and connection with their unborn child, it can legitimise and focus time spent bonding with and thinking about the new baby and it can help share the mother’s joy and focus on the pregnancy. Research shows that babies do respond to many sounds during pregnancy and can listen and even recognise voices whilst in the womb.
The Newborn Baby
Reading to a newborn has a range of benefits for both the baby and the adult reader.
Bonding – reading can be a special time between parents and babies away from all the other noise and commotion of everyday life. Taking time to read to a baby can really develop a sense of attachment. Reading time is not feeding, playing, bathing or changing time, it is just time for the two of you to enjoy each other’s company and get acquainted. Reading at this age should be a very intimate affair and can be the beginning of a bedtime routine that can last throughout childhood (and beyond). At this stage, it doesn’t matter what you read, so you can catch up on some of your favourite reading, just make it sound exciting! The important thing is the bonding.
Brain development – reading helps to develop key areas of cognitive function, including hearing/listening skills, language development, vocabulary, attention span, memory, vision and focal length, colour and image perception, imagination and anticipation.
Reading doesn’t just happen in books, it happens all around us, all the time. You can begin to make your child aware of all the ways that reading affects our lives by talking to them about the print around us. Tactile books are great at this age to help babies make a sensory connection to the story. You can make your own sensory stories by sticking relevant materials to the pictures of your favourite book (such as small pieces of sandpaper, plastic, silk etc). Use actions and noises when reading familiar books and your child may begin to copy and help you to tell the story.
Use a range of different types of books, cloth and cardboard, picture and paper books. Make sure you have some books where it is OK for your child to experience fully (grab, scrunch, chew and rub). For younger babies, pictures with high contrast may be most appealing, but as your child develops, they may like a range of pictures, colours and images. You may want to make your own books, using photographs of people or things your child knows or finds most interesting (such as other babies or a favourite toy). These can often be the most loved, and the stories can change as you tell them.
It is also important that your child sees you read. If you want to read, then it must be good! Role modelling desired behaviours (e.g. reading) is one of the most effective ways of encouraging your child to enjoy books – right next to hearing you read to them.
As your child grows you can find published books that relate to their own experiences or tell familiar stories (like fairy tales) but you may also wish to have some books that break away from the traditional roles (such as a female doctor or where the princess rescues the prince).
Reading at a Baby Playgroup
Why not include a reading session for babies at your playgroup? Even baby playgroups can benefit from a weekly story. In addition to introducing the infants to the joys of reading and a range of adult voices, it is a great way to share the load of finding new and relevant books to read and to learn how other parents and carers share their stories.
As Emilie Buchwald (author and publisher) said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” – so grab the opportunity as they are only small enough to fit (comfortably) on your lap for such a short amount of time!
How to read to babies:
- Make sure you are both relaxed and ready
- Turn off the TV, mobile phone, radio and as many other distractions as possible
- Find a comfortable space to snuggle together and share your book
- Keep it short (watch for signs your baby has had enough)
- Read with expression (use silly voices, animal noises or a sing-song style)
- Choose books that both of you will enjoy
- Repeat the same book often (one of the reasons you should enjoy the book too)
- Let your baby touch, grab and even mouth some books (learning for babies is a whole body experience)
- Include books of poems or ones with rhymes – you will enjoy reading them more, and they will become familiar to your baby much more quickly
- Point to the words as you read (help your child to make the connection between those black squiggles on the page and your words)
- Let your child help to turn the pages (from about 12 months, they may begin to do this themselves)
- Treat books with respect and model for your child how to hold the book, turn the pages and put it away
- Make sure that your child can access some books easily – alongside their other toys and games
- Read to your baby every day, you and your baby will soon learn to look forward to this special time in both your lives.