Reading is the single best activity you can use to engage your baby, stimulate your toddler, teach your child, engage your teen, and enjoy as an adult. The earlier you can establish a love of reading, the better and more long lasting it will be. A child who loves reading will be able to unlock an amazing world of wonder and discovery. Here are some tips and tricks that have helped us to raise four children who love reading.
1. In Utero
The bond between a mother and child is so special and so unique – two beings occupying one body, two heartbeats beating within the same space, and two bodies being nourished simultaneously. As soon as 24 weeks, a baby can hear his or her mother’s voice and becomes accustomed to it enough to respond to it over a stranger’s after birth. In the 1980s, psychology professor Anthony James DeCasper and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro discovered that soon after birth, a newborn prefers a story (in this case, Cat in the Hat) that had been read repeatedly in the womb over a new story. (Read the article here.)
There is a certain cadence and prosody to reading that a newborn can resonate with as you read to him or her in the womb. This may be a natural part of his or her development if you have other children, but if not, don’t feel silly about getting comfortable in the rocking chair and reading the same book over and over again to your belly. I always read, “Oh Baby, the Places You’ll Go,” when I was pregnant for my firstborn, Ruby, and it brought tears to my eyes every time. After that, the babies in my belly got read to as I read to my other children as they shared a lap with their new growing sibling.
2. Bonding Time
Now, this may not seem like a part of the reading process, but it’s all connected. Reading is a very bonding experience, and your children’s bond with reading will be connected to their bond with you. For the first three months of life, your baby is figuring out life outside of the womb in a fourth trimester that is every bit as important as the other three trimesters of pregnancy.
They need you to figure them out, they need you to hold them, they need you to fall in love, they need you to help them adjust to this world of lights, voices, air, food, and you. I typically don’t introduce reading during this phase. Instead, I am just hyper focused on connecting with them in whatever ways come naturally. I am aware that new babies can only see about 8 to 10 inches in front of their faces and so I try to keep my face in that range so that we can get to know each other. Just smiling, cooing, talking softly, holding, cuddling, rocking, nursing, and sleeping are the most important activities during this time.
3. Introducing Books
As babies reach the end of their fourth trimester, usually when they are about three months old, they will be able to start following moving objects with their eyes. This is a good time to start introducing them to books.
I like to pick a couple of board or cloth books to keep in their toy bin and read them often. I love to use books during tummy time. To be honest, I don’t really know if I’ve ever introduced books at this young of an age with my other children, and I was kind of shocked to see Julian so enraptured by this little counting book.
4. Build a Library of Books
Check out my blog: Best Books for Babies for my recommended list of books that my babies have loved if you’d like a place to start. Basically, you want to find books that you will enjoy reading over and over and over again. If you love the books you are reading, chances are your baby will too!
Next, you’ll start to discover books that for one reason or another, your baby really loves – when that happens, buy more just like them! While it’s fun to go to the library and check out a selection of new books, it’s important to have some books that you always keep at home. These are the best ones to read during bedtime routine and to keep at an accessible level so your baby can find them and explore them at his or her own leisure.
5. Reading Routines
There are certain times I always like to read to my babies. I usually love to just nurse my babies to sleep, but when this stops happening (at about 6-8 months with Ophelia and at about 18 months with Julian), I like to incorporate some books (usually three) into our bedtime routine. I also love reading before nap time and then again when my babies first wake up.
Before we begin reading, I make sure to “set the stage”. I have a nice comfy rocking chair next to a little table with a basket full of books that my baby loves, a soft lamp, and anything else we might need like milk or a pacifier. Then we get cuddled up with a nice soft silky and get to reading.
6. Repetitive Reading
Babies love things that are simple, repetitive, and familiar. But how do you make a new book familiar? Well, you have to start somewhere! Find a time when your baby has been fed, changed, and is in a happy and responsive mood, and then introduce the new book. If your baby doesn’t seem engaged, just try to get through it as quickly as possible. If you find something about the book that holds your child’s attention, spend some time talking about it. You don’t need to read the words from the book exactly. (“Do you like that kitty? That looks like our kitty, _______, doesn’t it? What does a kitty say? Meow! Do you want to pet the kitty? Pet her gently! Nice kitty.”)
After you’ve read through the book, put it aside and bring it out again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that until it becomes familiar. If after reading the book several times, your baby still does not seem interested, then abandon it and choose something new. When your baby is older, he is going to blow you away when he crawls over to the basket of books that you have read so many times and starts flipping through the ones you have read over and over together.
7. Expressive Reading
When reading with little babies, they will not understand the words that you are reading, but they will comprehend the cadence, prosody, tone, intonation, and expression. I like to read with exaggerated expression in whatever way will elicit a positive response. In doing so, I sometimes make up words that are not in the text that will be best suited for such a response. For example, when I’m reading with my little ones, I like to call special attention to emotions and really act them out.
8. Interactive Reading
Get your baby involved by letting her turn the page, lift the flaps, fill in the blanks, and answer questions. Pause at key words so she can give it a go. As my babies get familiar with the books we are reading, I like to pause at either the last word of the page or at a word that they have shown an interest in trying to say. Then, I give them a chance to say the word, and then I repeat it back. (As your child starts to form words, you’ll often just hear the beginning sound of the word. You might not even realize that’s what’s going on, but when you hear her make the same sound every time, you’ll know!) This also works really well with any book that has a flap. Give your baby a chance to say the word that’s under the flap either before they lift it or right afterwards. Giving a nice long pause is very important. If you always do it, they will learn that you will wait for them to say the word.
9. Enjoy Yourself
The most important thing is to have fun with it! If you are enjoying yourself, your baby can tell and will respond positively. But if you’re looking at the clock thinking, “How long do I have to do this for?” your baby will also be able to tell. If you’re having a hard time getting into it, think about what would make it fun for you. Bring a special snack of cookies and milk along to nibble on while you read, make sure you’ve got a comfortable spot for reading set up, get some books that you enjoyed when you were a kid, just do whatever it takes to make it a fun experience full of love that will build positive memories for the future.
10. Don’t Force It
With our four children, I definitely notice that some have more of a patient and quiet personality and love cuddling up for hours on end reading books, while others have a much shorter attention span and would rather be active and moving around. This might be due to personality differences or it could just be because of the time of day. The important thing is to not force it. If you get everything ready to read and they squirm to get down or start fussing, then abandon it for another time. If you keep being persistent in your efforts, you will find the right moments to read. With some children, it just might happen at a higher frequency than others, and that’s ok!
By working to establish a love of reading with your babies, they will learn to love books before they can even grasp what that really means, and they will carry this love of reading into their toddler, child, teen, and adult years. In the meantime, you will create some amazing memories while you do what you do best and what they need most, which is hugging, snuggling, cuddling, and providing lots and lots of love.
*Reading with your baby is just one way to help build oral language. Check out my blog: Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think! for more ideas. You also might like my blog: Best Books for Babies.