After growing up in a house overflowing with books, I thought it was only natural that my daughter, Piper, would share my love of reading. But my vision of sharing treasured stories as we cuddled in an overstuffed chair quickly disappeared when the books failed to hold her attention. She seemed to enjoy tearing the pages more than listening to the story. I didn't want to deprive her of a love of reading -- something I felt had shaped my own life. I wondered: What's the best way to encourage a love of books in babies?
After all, children exposed to books early on tend to become better learners and earlier speakers. "Books really do make a difference in children's speech," says Perri E. Klass, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Boston University Medical Center and medical director of the nonprofit agency Reach Out and Read. "Studies show that kids who've been exposed to a great deal of language, who've been read to regularly, who've grown up in homes rich in books and print, are more likely to arrive at school age with the prereading skills of book handling, storytelling, knowing the letters in the alphabet, and counting to 20."
However, when your child is very young, reading is primarily about bonding, not building IQ; the language boost your child gets is a bonus. The act of reading itself is a chance to slow down and spend time together. It's that connection that's behind instilling a lifetime love of reading in children. So don't worry if she'd rather mouth the pages than follow the story for now. Instead enjoy the one-on-one time.
To get you started, here's an age-by-age guide to coaxing your little one into the literary world.
Your young infant is not exactly equipped for books. A newborn can barely hold his head upright and his eyesight is fuzzy at best, both of which prevent him from focusing on the pages. He also can't see in color until about 4 months. Because his vision is still developing, look for books with high-contrast visuals: bold primary colors, black-and-white patterns (stripes, checks, or polka dots) and geometric shapes. Babies are drawn to brightly colored, uncluttered illustrations. They also love to look at faces -- especially other babies' faces.
In the newborn phase, it's really exposure to his parents' voice that attracts a baby's attention and stimulates intellectual and cognitive growth, says Dr. Klass. A baby's mind is like a sponge -- designed to soak up language and sounds long before he utters a single word.
Because they're captivated by sound, rhythmic, repetitive prose can be particularly engaging to infants. "I just got a great book called The Little Big Book for Moms -- it has fairy tales, poetry, and nursery rhymes, plus songs to sing," says Susie McGrath, of San Francisco, who has just started reading to her new baby, Collin. Jennifer Rosenberg, of Eugene, Oregon, a mom of one with another baby on the way, acts out the stories by using different voices. "You can make anything interesting by reading with inflection and variety," says Rosenberg. "And I'm not afraid to look silly -- babies love silly!"
In fact, at this age it almost doesn't matter what you read from -- your favorite magazine, the latest paperback thriller, or the sports section. "When I read to my kids, I would even read the title page and copyright information. They liked the sound of my voice just as much," says Barbara Needham of Hanford, California. Sallie Han, from Oneonta, New York, admits that the books she chooses for reading time aren't exactly traditional; they run the gamut from baby books to philosopher Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness.
And reading is such a wonderful bedtime ritual that it's never too soon to start. Han and her husband have traded off reading Goodnight Moon every night to their 8-month-old daughter, Sabrina, since she was was 3 months old. "As far as I'm concerned," says Han, "this is really about quiet time together."
Babies start focusing on the pages in front of them. Choose simple, straightforward books that have only one picture (say, of everyday objects like an apple or a truck) and a few words per page.
You'll also notice that at this age, children are more concerned with the physical qualities of the book as opposed to the actual story. Pick books that engage all his senses. Touch-and-feel books and activity books like Pat the Bunny -- ones with lift-up flaps, musical buttons, or pop-ups -- are perfect for babies' tiny fingers to explore. Encourage activities like turning pages that will help develop fine motor skills and make the child an active participant in the story. In general, it's best to choose sturdy board books that can stand up to a baby's gumming, tugging, and throwing. The way your baby handles a book may not be pretty, but keep in mind that chewing and mouthing books are the way babies learn about objects.
Dr. Klass encourages parents to try making storytime more interactive, too. Start linking words to objects and gestures. Point to the book and say, "There's the baby's nose. Where's your nose? There it is!" Babies are delighted when they see connections between their life and the books they enjoy.
The good thing is it's almost impossible not to relate to your child when you're reading aloud to her, says Mem Fox, the author of children's books including Time for Bed. "Sing, clap hands, and play games. Take advantage of the opportunity for cuddling, murmuring in your baby's ear, or kissing the back of his perfect little neck."
This is the age when children can really appreciate reading. Concept books become more meaningful, with ideas like up/down, big/little, and top/bottom. Children are learning more about themselves and the world around them.
In addition, the number of words kids can understand has increased so reading becomes more reciprocal as you encourage their language skills. You can ask, "Where's the ball?" And when they point to it, say, "Yes, that's a red ball."
Your toddler may also begin developing favorite books from her library. Be prepared to read a story again and again. In our house, the day is not complete without a hearty rendition of Sandra Boynton's Pajama Time! Often Piper will giggle excitedly in anticipation of her favorite line, "It's Pajama Time!" (She's especially thrilled when my husband delivers the line overdramatically in an Adam Sandler-esque voice.)
Christine Lunday of Ashby, Massachusetts, mother to 12-year-old Justine and 3-year-old Jacqueline, agrees. "One of our favorite stories was Madeline. No matter how many times we read it, we never got tired of reciting the line, 'To the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said, Pooh-Pooh.'" Funny, repetitive sounds (like pooh-pooh) and animal and vehicle noises are big hits now.
Why aren't kids bored to tears after hearing the same book hundreds of times? As babies get older, their world expands at an alarming rate, which is why toddlers are drawn to stories that they have become accustomed to. The familiarity of a child's favorite book -- stories with common household objects or themes like bedtime -- can instill her with the comfort and reliability she desperately craves. That's also why kids get so upset when you try to skip some words or vary a beloved story.
But while toddlers thrive on repetition and familiarity, this is also the time when they start spending more time outside of the home. Let children know that words and reading are part of the larger world around them. Take them to your local library and bookstores. Read cereal boxes and labels when you go to the supermarket. Take books along for car trips. Buy soft, vinyl books to be enjoyed during bath time. Let them know that books can go anywhere!
Toddlers, experiencing a surge of independence, will now begin carrying their books around the house and start "reading" aloud to themselves and their toys.
Amy Ruocco of Hudson, New Hampshire, often finds her 21-month-old daughter, Claire, reading to herself in the nursery rocking chair. "Sometimes, I'll catch her pointing to the animals and making their sounds -- something that we've always done together. She'll get a proud little smile on her face when I peek in on her."
The 18- to 24-month-old child's capabilities add a new dimension to storytime. Your child now becomes a more active participant in the process by choosing books and talking about the action. You can pick books with more words per page and more of a storyline. "Resist just reading to your toddler," says Hilary Stecklein, MD, a pediatrician and founder of Reading Rx, a Minnesota-based nonprofit. "Read with your toddler, making it a give-and-take experience." Ask for his input. Nod your head in agreement. Ask questions and be enthusiastic as he becomes involved with the story.
Toddlerhood is also when a multitude of distractions and your child's newfound ability to run around may mean it's harder to get him to sit down with a book. If your toddler refuses to settle down for story time, Dr. Klass recommends choosing books with short, quick sentences and reading one or two pages, then letting the child take a lap around the room before picking up where you left off. You can also see if reading to siblings or with extra enthusiasm will entice your little one to come over to see what all the fuss is about. And set a good example by letting your kids see you enjoying your own books.
"Read aloud every day because you love being with your child, not just because it's the right thing to do," says Mem Fox. "And, basically, everyone lives happily ever after."
Don't be surprised if filling your child's next prescription takes you to the local library instead of the pharmacy. Pediatricians who participate with Reach Out and Read (ROR), a nonprofit agency based at Boston University's Medical Center, use well-child visits to teach parents about the importance of reading aloud. They may donate books to families, provide volunteer readers in the waiting room, or even write out a child's prescription for a good book. Already in more than 2,000 clinics, hospitals, and private practices, ROR annually delivers at least 3 million books to children nationwide. For more information, visit www.reachoutandread.org.
Another program, Reading Rx (www.readingrx.org), a Minnesota-based nonprofit, provides book kiosks in waiting rooms of doctors' offices and clinics.
Megan Kelley Hall is a mother of one in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2004.
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.