Age-by-Age Guide to Reading to Your Baby

Get your child to fall in love with reading at an early age.

mom reading to baby
Photo: NolteLourens/shutterstock.com

The Benefits of Reading

Reading is a healthy habit that parents should encourage well before their baby's first birthday. The bonding experience is unbeatable, says Patricia Cowan, national program coordinator for Reach Out and Read, a project that gives children books during medical checkups. When you read to children, they're getting your full attention, and that's what they just love. Nothing -- no TV show or toy -- is better than that.

Reading to babies is also a great way to immerse them in the sounds and rhythms of speech, which is crucial for language development. In a study at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island, 18- to 25-month-olds whose parents said they had been reading to them regularly for a year could say and understand more words than those whose parents hadn't.

Since that Brown study, other research has come out that appears to confirm the value of reading to young kids. For example, babies and young children who are not read to at home by a relative will face a "million-word gap" by the time they go to school. That's because reading out loud creates the opportunity for kids to build their vocabulary, and without that precious time to hear, say, and build pre-literacy skills to eventually read those words, they may lose out.

But while it is important to read to your child every day, it may equally be important what you read to your child. We know that reading to babies and toddlers helps them develop logical thinking, pre-literacy, communication, and emotional intelligence skills, and much of that happens by choosing age-appropriate books that challenge your child.

With that in mind, here's an age-by-age guide to getting your kids hooked on books.

Birth to 12 Months

Birth to 6 months

Since an infant's vision is still developing, choose books with little or no text and big, high-contrast pictures. Also, consider books with interactive stuff, such as puppets, mirrors, or peepholes, recommends Pamela High, MD, author of the Brown University reading study and a professor of pediatrics there. The more ways you both have to enjoy a book, the better. If you'd like, read to your baby from grown-up books or magazines too. Comprehending the words isn't really the point with babies this young.

For infants, reading is about the tone of your voice and cuddling up to you. Here are a few books to read the next time you're snuggled up together:

  • Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
  • Look! Look! by Peter Linenthal
  • Baby Beluga by Raffi
  • Little Poems for Tiny Ears by Lin Oliver

7 to 12 months

Halfway through their first year, babies may begin to grasp some of the words read to them, says Cosby Rogers, Ph.D., a professor of human development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The most meaningful words are the names and things from their everyday life -- words like "doggy," "mommy," "daddy," "milk," or "bottle."

Books with just one object or person per age are best; hearing you name something they can recognize reinforces your baby's vocabulary and slowly helps them realize that illustrations stand for real things. Point to the pictures your baby shows interest in. And act out what you read with your face, hands, and voice. Let your baby babble back to you in return, suggests Dr. Rogers. This "conversation" helps them learn to take turns and teaches them about focusing on the same thing as someone else.

As a practical tip, babies this age tend to be hard on their playthings, so try sticking mostly to board books, which can take rough handling (and even chewing!). Cloth or vinyl books are good, too, though turning the pages can be challenging for a baby. Touch and feel type books are super fun, but be sure to avoid any with ribbons, buttons, or other small choking hazards that can easily detatch with a good yank.

Here are a few board books that are sure to capture your baby's attention:

  • Llama Llama Nighty-Night by Ann Dewdney
  • Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt
  • You're My Little Baby by Eric Carle
  • Where Is Baby's Belly Button? by Karen Katz

13 to 24 Months

13 to 18 months

Now, you can begin to introduce books with a sentence or two per page. The sillier you are while acting out the story, the better. For instance, if you're reading about animals, make animal noises. Your baby will think it's really funny, Cowan says. Sooner or later, he will "moo" or "baa" back to you and you'll be ready to fall off the couch laughing.

Invite participation by asking questions such as "What does the dog say?" or "Do you see the cat?" Ask your baby to point to real-life examples of what's pictured, ("Where's your nose?"). At this age, you can show more pictures of things your baby doesn't encounter every day. Also, at 15 to 18 months, your baby may be able to answer questions with a word, so give them the opportunity by asking them, "What's that?" If they answer, you can help boost their vocabulary by expanding on their thought:" Yes, car. That's a big green car."

Here are a few great books to get your baby interacting with the story:

  • Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? by Dr. Seuss
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • First 100 Words by Roger Priddy
  • Babies Love Colors by Michelle-Rhodes Conway

19 to 24 months

Many toddlers find the familiar routine of reading reassuring and calming. The same goes for familiar books. This helps explain why, starting at about 18 months, children may ask for the same book over and over and over -- and why they won't let you change your reading performance by a single "meow" or "vroom." However, this dogged repetition has a learning benefit as well: Experts think it helps children make sense of and then remember new words.

Here are a few books that you might not mind reading over and over again!

  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
  • Just Go to Bed (Little Critter) by Mercer Mayer
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
  • Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

More Book Picks You Might Love

When we asked our readers to tell us their baby's favorite book, the titles that got the most mentions weren't surprising: Goodnight Moon and anything by Dr. Seuss, followed closely by Sam McBratney's Guess How Much I Love You.

Here are some other raved-about books that you might not have heard of yet:

  • Moo, Baa, LA LA LA by Sandra Boynton "At under 2 years, my son can recite the entire book just by looking at the pages." --Michelle Speer, Edwardsville, Illinois
  • Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? by Nancy White Carlstrom and Time for Bed by Mem Fox "I've read to my 5-1/2-month-old since birth, and he gets so excited when he sees these books, kicking his feet and waving his arms." --Judy James, Miami, Florida
  • Maisy's Colors by Lucy Cousins "My daughter Grace is 11 months old, but she's enjoyed this particular book since about 4 months. I don't know if she likes the mouse or the colors, but it's already completely worn out!" --Catherine Brainerd
  • Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown "My 4-1/2-month-old daughter, Cara, loves Big Red Barn. She even helps us turn the pages." --Sandra Schneider, Berthoud, Colorado
  • I'm a Little Caterpillar by Tim Weare "My 8-1/2-month-old son's favorite book is I'm a Little Caterpillar. He finds it so exciting because it has a cute little finger puppet attached." --Denise McKnight, Metairie, Louisiana

Here are some children's books that parents seem to adore for themselves!

  • On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier "I still get chills when I read that one." --Cindy Long, Wellfleet, MA
  • Love You Forever by Robert N. Munsch "It's the most heartwarming book I've ever read." --Gail Denker, Bayside, NY

Copyright © 2002 AmericanBaby.com.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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