When should you start reading to your child? The answer is…right now! I mean really, you can start reading while your baby is still in the womb. Babies develop their sense of hearing at 18 weeks and can respond to noise at 25 weeks. The cadence (the flow of language) and prosody (tune and rhythm) of reading sounds are different than normal speech and children can become attuned to them in the womb. It’s easy for your baby to pick this up when you have other children that you’re reading to, but if you don’t, don’t be embarrassed to read to your belly! (This is the best book to read in utero.)
I like to start reading regularly with my babies when they are about 3-4 months old. At this point, they can hold their heads up, grab things, follow a moving object, and are more interested in shapes and patterns. The neural brain explosion occurs when babies are 6 months old, so you definitely want to make sure you’re reading by then.
What Babies First Learn About Reading
- What books are
- How to hold a book
- How to turn pages
- Reading happens from left to right
- Books have words and pictures
- How to interact with books (get interactive books)
- What a reading voice sounds like (the cadence and prosody of reading)
- That reading is special and fun
How to Read with Your Baby
First of all, you need to make reading special. Get stacks of really good books that your baby will love, and put them near your rocking chair, the couch, and your arm chair. (I like keeping my books in baskets like this.) Make sure your baby is fed, rested, and happy, and then introduce a book. At first, babies will interact with a new book as they would any other toy, but after reading it over and over and over again, you will be completely blown away when your baby starts to recognize it. With some books, I also enjoy turning it into a song.
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. 4th Trimester 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.
Your baby needs you to figure them out, to hold them, to fall in love, and 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, 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. Create a Reading Environment
These are the ways that I have created a reading environment in my home. I have found that if you integrate reading into your daily life and make books easily accessible, children will be immersed in a world where they can’t help but read and see reading as a fun past time.
- Make Books Easily Accessible – I love having baskets of books in every room of the house, and several baskets in our living room areas. I regularly sort them to make sure all books can be seen and are being used. If you keep books tucked away on bookshelves with only their spines showing, they won’t get used as much.
- Build a Home Library of Books – To get your library started, go to thrift stores and garage sales to build the bulk of your collection. Once you start reading with your child, you’ll learn what he or she is into and get more books to satisfy his or her interests. Once you have a base collection, you can start adding new books that are really high quality, like these books from Usborne.
- Trips to the Library – The librarians always look at me funny when I ask what the maximum number of books I can check out is (it’s 35). I love letting our kids pick out as many books as they want until we reach our limit. It’s always fun to have a new collection of books to read. I love watching as kids start picking out their own books that match their interests.
- Make Comfy Reading Spaces– Making little reading stations with small chairs, bean bags, or little couches makes reading so much fun and encourages children to read independently. My children can often be found snacking while reading. I think it’s important to make sure children are fed and happy while reading to make it an enjoyable experience.
- Lap Reading – I love pulling my little ones onto my lap while sitting in a comfy rocking chair or snuggling up next to them on the couch. Near these spots, I make sure to keep baskets of books, blankets to snuggle up in, and maybe some water too!
- Books in Bed – Bedtime reading is a favorite part of our day. Each of our children have baskets of books next to their beds that are their personal favorites. We always read books at bedtime, and it is a special way to end the day. Also, since these books get read over and over and over, they are usually the first ones our little ones read since they have memorized all of the words.
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, 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. Interacting with Books
When children are familiar and comfortable with reading, they will show more and more signs that they want to get involved. I believe that the gradual release of responsibility model of teaching is phenomenal because it slowly builds a child’s confidence until they are ready to do it on their own. First, they start out watching you as you read, then you start to get them involved in little ways, and finally they will be reading completely on their own! Here are some of the ways you can slowly get your child involved in reading.
- Turn the Page – I like to lift up the next page just a bit until my little ones grab on and turn the page. It’s amazing how much they enjoy this!
- Interactive Books – I love reading books that have flaps, sounds, and more so that my little ones can see that books are meant to be engaging.
- Pointing to Words – I don’t do this every time I read because it would get tedious and boring, but on occasion, I like to point to each word as I’m reading. This shows children how reading works and helps them to memorize new words in the context of a book.
- Leaving Out Words – I love reading the same books over and over and over again with my children until they are practically memorized. Then, I start pausing at the last word on the page for them to say. I find that if I pause in sort of a questiony way, they will say it on their own. When they do, I point to the word as they are saying it. Once they’ve mastered reading the last word, I also like to incorporate leaving out other words in the book.
- Picture Reading – I like to show my little ones how to “read” a book without any words by just talking about whatever I see in the pictures, and then I like to encourage them to do the same.
- Repeated Reading – Whenever a child shows special interest in a book, I like to read it over and over as much as possible. This repeated reading will help children to memorize words that will become part of their word bank that they use for speedy reading.
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!
My Favorite Cloth Books
Board books are great, but for babies 3-6 months of age, I really love cloth books…especially when they start chewing on everything! There are so many different cloth books out there, but these are the ones that have stood the test of time for all five children. Read about my favorite board books here.
- Discovery Farm – This cloth book has many moving parts and is very engaging. I bought this for Ruby and still have it for baby #5!
- Peek-a-Boo Forest – Lamaze always has great toys and books. This cute little cloth book about an owl is wonderful.
- Fuzzy Bee – This cloth book is another favorite that we have used with all five kids. I love the little animals and interactive parts and so do our babies!
- Sunny Day Come and Play – This is another family favorite cloth book with great interactive pages. It’s made by Manhattan Toy, and I love pretty much everything they make.
- Peekaboo, I Love You – This is another Lamaze cloth book that I LOVE. Peekaboo is such a fun baby game and incorporating it into reading is just a wonderful idea. My babies love this book!
I LOVE Usborne books! The pages are super durable, the stories are interesting, the vocabulary development is phenomenal, and the people and Usborne GET reading. They know that children should start young…I’m talking babies…and provide PLENTY of resources to get your little ones interested in reading.
- Home Library Starter – This is a great collection to start your library for a baby. It has a little bit of everything and will get your baby on the right track towards reading.
- Baby’s Very First Black and White Library – The contrast of this black and white set makes these books perfect for newborns. Get the boxed set here.
- Fold Out Books – These books are visually striking, and I like how they can create a scene that stands upright.
- Baby’s Very First Stroller Books – These sturdy brightly colored books include an elastic attachment to affix the book to a stroller or baby gym.
- Baby’s First Noisy Books – These engaging board books have a sound panel to the right that makes the book come to life.
- Baby’s First Slide and See – These interactive books have a simple slide mechanism that adds an interesting motion to each book. They are very sturdy and can withstand inquisitive little fingers.
- Baby’s First Playbook – These books have bright and interesting pictures with interactive elements like texture and lift the flap. They are very sturdy.
- Baby’s First Bus Book – I love the thick cardboard wheels on this bus that actually turn and help the book stand up plus the bright and colorful illustrations.
- Touchy Feely Board Books (That’s not my..) – These board books are very cute and simple with lots of interesting texture and repeated patterns. My older children even love them! This boxed set about zoo animals is a great collection.
Reading with your baby shouldn’t be something you have to schedule in or even feel guilty about if you haven’t done it in awhile. If you set up an environment that is full of language rich experiences and lots of books, it will be easy to find moments here and there that are just right to snuggle up with a good book. If your baby is sitting on your lap, fed and content, and you’re wondering what to do beside having those wonderful face to face baby conversations, pick up a book and read it together!
For More Information
You’ll find everything you need to teach your child to read on my FREE READING RESOURCES page which includes flashcards, videos, plus more tips and tricks.
How to Teach Your Child to Read in 5 Simple Steps (Keeping it Simple)
- Language Rich Environment: Use oral language at the child’s level (Get down on the floor and play together!) and help them memorize vocabulary words. (Tell them the names of things!)
- Phonemic Awareness: Teach one sound for each letter of the alphabet. (Start with short vowels.)
- Phonics: Tap out sounds in three letter words to teach how sounds come together to make words.
- More Complex Phonemic Awareness: Introduce long vowels, digraphs, other vowel sounds, and complex consonants.
- Reading Comprehension Strategies: Use quality literature to interact with books and ask questions before, during, and after reading to make sure your child is understanding what is being read.
Teach Your Child to Read Blog Series (Digging Deeper)
- #1-Oral Language Development Lays the Foundation for Reading
- #2-How Engage Your Baby or Young Child with Reading
- #3-Learning How to Read Begins with the ABCs
- #4-Memorizing Words (Before Sounding Them Out) Leads to Reading
- #5-Building Vocabulary with Numbers, Colors, and Shapes
- #6-Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Word Families
- #7-Unlock the Final Stages of Reading with Advanced Phonemic Awareness
- #8-Reading Comprehension Strategies Lead to Independent Readers
- #9-Reinforcing Reading with Writing