At this age, your baby is more likely to try to put a book in her mouth than to turn its pages. But that doesn't mean it's too soon to make reading a part of your little one's life. Experts say exposing babies to books in the first year is crucial to their intellectual and emotional growth. In fact, research shows that reading to infants can help jump-start brain development and can even make them more receptive to learning.
"When you read aloud to your baby, you're teaching her to recognize that different sounds have different meanings -- and that's the foundation of speech and comprehension," says Marilyn Segal, PhD, dean emeritus of the Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale.
Picture books with bright, simple images provide visual stimulation that enhances your child's cognitive skills: Pointing out objects and talking about them with your baby -- "See those yellow socks? They're just like the yellow socks on your feet!" -- helps her link names with specific objects and shows her that what she sees in books exists in real life.
What's more, sharing story time with an infant can boost her emotional development. "Being held on your lap and hearing your voice during regular reading sessions gives your baby a sense of stability and security," says Betty Ann Watson, EdD, director of early-childhood education at Harding University, in Searcy, Arkansas. "It also creates a positive association with books, and that encourages a lifelong love of reading."
Of course, reading to young babies isn't always a fairy tale. While some infants sit still and listen intently, many others squirm and fuss or try to pull the book out of your hand. Don't worry if your baby isn't spellbound when you first start reading to him. "With a little practice and patience, most babies eventually learn to settle down," Dr. Watson says.
Eliminating distractions and giving your child something to hold, such as a bottle or a toy, might help her stay focused. Raising or lowering your voice, making faces to show emotion or surprise, and interacting with your baby while you're reading -- tapping her nose when a horn toots or clapping her hands together when you see a favorite character -- help draw her into the story. But if your baby keeps twisting away or sliding out of your lap, it's best to put the book down and try again later. "Don't force it, because you don't want reading to seem like a chore," Dr. Watson says.
The key is to make story time a fun activity for your baby -- and for you. Here are some ways to do that.
Make it a habit to read several times during the day when you're in a relaxed mood and your baby is receptive to stories, such as after a nap or just before bedtime. Hold the book about 12 inches from his face so he can easily see the pictures. Start reading to him for just a few minutes, and gradually increase the time to get him used to the idea of looking at books. And remember, it's never too early to start. Even a newborn will enjoy cuddling in your arms and listening as you talk.
When reading to your baby, use a high-pitched, expressive voice. Speak slowly and clearly, enunciating each syllable so she can hear the different sounds of language. Researchers have found that babies prefer and learn best from a singsong, exaggerated tone, which many parents use when communicating with their infants.
Read your baby's favorite books, and repeat some of the words over and over. "Repetition reinforces phonetic sounds and helps your baby learn language," explains Ruth Peters, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Clearwater, Florida. Reading familiar books also makes your baby feel comfortable, confident, and secure because he knows what to expect next.
Let your baby hold, touch, and play with the book. At around 8 months, help her learn to turn the pages. Stock your library with baby books made of sturdy cardboard, heavy-duty cloth, or soft plastic because they stand up to chewing, grabbing, and tossing. Even if you read only a few words at each sitting, your baby will benefit -- and perhaps even develop a lifelong affinity for books.
Baby Pets, by Margaret Miller. Every page features clear, colorful photos of lots of babies and animals, along with a short, simple phrase.
Fuzzy Fuzzy Fuzzy! by Sandra Boynton. Each wacky illustration has something to touch, like a cow's smooth snout or a turkey's bumpy wattle.
Gaspard and Lisa's Ready for School Words, by Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben. Warm watercolor illustrations introduce your baby to everyday words.
Growing Vegetable Soup, by Lois Ehlert. Little ones will love the vibrant pictures of planting seeds and preparing food.
Toes, Ears, and Nose! by Karen Katz. Lift-up flaps give a peekaboo surprise to help your baby identify different body parts.
Originally published in the December 2004 issue of Parents magazine.