Read Early and Often
You probably know that it’s important to read to your child. You also may have heard that starting earlier is better. But maybe you feel a little silly reading aloud to an infant? Or you can’t figure out how to keep your 6-month-old from eating the corners of the book, or get your toddler to sit still and listen? We’ve all been there. Although it seems babies are too young to enjoy being read to, they’re learning something new at every stage.
In this resource
Why Read to Babies?
Research shows that reading together when babies are as young as 4 months old increases the likelihood that parents continue reading to babies as they get older. Beginning the habit early is important because the foundation of language is being built in a baby’s brain during the first 3 years. This process is nurtured when babies hear you talk and read aloud. The more words your baby hears over time, the more words she learns. That makes sharing stories a brain-building activity, too. At this age, babies learn how books work: how to hold them, turn the pages, and recognize simple pictures.
For babies and toddlers, sharing stories is all about making it a pleasurable and positive experience. When you let your 1-year-old skip forward and back through a book, or have your 2-year-old turn the pages, or let your baby chew the corner of a favorite story, your child is learning that “reading” is a positive experience. When lots of snuggly lap time is part of reading together, sharing books also strengthens the parent-child relationship. These moments together can provide a much-needed pause in a busy day.
Reading: Ages and Stages
Here are some general guidelines for what types of books are a good fit from birth to 3, along with some can’t-miss parent tips for book-sharing in the early years. Letting your child love books in the ways he knows how at each age fosters literacy skills from birth to 3, and beyond!
|Your Child’s Age||Books for Infants||Tips for Parents|
|Birth-6 Months||Go ahead and start reading chunky board books, soft fabric books, or vinyl bath books.||Though your baby may seem too little to understand, she enjoys your company and the sounds of your voice and words. At this age, babies may come to recognize the book-sharing routine by calming, widening their eyes, or smiling and kicking to show excitement. Babies will also want to explore books through their senses by grabbing and chewing on the book. They may not pay attention to the whole story, so take a break when they get bored (looking away, arching back, closing eyes, crying).|
|6-9 Months||Offer short, simple stories with colorful illustrations—board books are perfect.||Babies may begin to explore books by looking, touching (opening/closing), and mouthing them. By 9 months, they may prefer or seem to recognize certain stories or pictures. Your baby may also continue to occasionally mouth books. In the early years, that is a normal book behavior and tells us that babies want to explore books!|
|9–18 Months||Offer board books with simple stories. Stories with rhymes and phrases that repeat also catch your toddler’s attention. Children this age also love stories with pictures of other babies and familiar objects, such as animals.||Your toddler may have a favorite story that she requests all the time. Starting at about 12 months old, you can start to ask simple questions about the pictures such as “Where is the moon?” and watch to see if your baby points or gestures.|
|18–24 Months||Introduce longer stories (perhaps with paper pages, though supervise carefully) with more complex plots. Humor is a big selling point at this age, as are silly rhymes.||Don’t worry if your toddler runs away when you read—kids this age just really need to move. If you keep reading, he’ll keep listening, and he may come back to reconnect and hear more. Look for ways to connect that energy to the story, such as asking your child to hop like the rabbit in the book. Your toddler might also be able to label objects with simple sounds or words, for example, exclaiming “Moo!” when he sees a picture of a cow. For new talkers, get in the habit of pausing before you say a favorite line or phrase in the story to see if your toddler will fill in the final word. Harness your toddler’s growing independence and give your child the “job” of turning pages. While reading, take some time to discuss what’s happening in the pictures and ask questions about the book such as “Who is hiding behind the tree?” This interaction helps to build your toddler’s thinking and language skills.|
|24–36 Months||Your child may be ready for books with regular pages and those that have an engaging plot (extra points for humor, rhymes, and great illustrations). Nonfiction stories—such as a book about construction vehicles, stories about animals or seasons, or books that discuss jobs such as doctor or mail carrier—are also of interest to toddlers who are working hard to figure out how the world works.||At this age, you can ask questions about the story that are a little tougher such as “How do you think the boy is feeling?” or “What do you think will happen next?” Make connections between the book and your child’s life by asking questions such as “The boy in this story played in the snow. What did you do in the snow this afternoon?” By 3 years old, your child may even be able to tell you the story based on what’s happening in the pictures. And don’t be surprised if your little one wants to hear the same book over and over. Toddlers still love repetition and won’t tire of a story, even the 7th time.|
Finally, remember that telling your child a story can happen any time. Give it a try during mealtimes, diaper changes, driving to child care, and right before bed when you “tell the story” of your child’s day. Each of these moments creates an opportunity to build a deeper connection with your child and to build her language and literacy skills, too!
About Baby Steps
This article was featured in Baby Steps, a ZERO TO THREE newsletter for parents and caregivers. Each issue offers science-based information on a topic of interest to parents and caregivers of young children—from sleep to challenging behaviors, and everything in between.