Before my daughter Vivien was born, I received many books as gifts. As much as I looked forward to cuddling up for a story, I was a bit uncertain about when to actually get started. It seemed silly to read to Vivien before she could even hold her head up!
One day, I decided to give it a try anyway. She wasn’t exactly following the story, but she didn’t cry either, so I started to make reading a regular part of our day. As time passed, I noticed she was becoming more interested. In fact, she eventually grew to love books so much that one of her first sentences ended up being, “Read it.” I mostly saw story sessions as a chance to snuggle and quietly bond with my daughter, but it turns out that there are significant language development benefits too. “The single biggest predictor of a child’s vocabulary size at age 3 is the number of words that were spoken to her up until that point. Reading is a great way to up that number,” says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D, director of pediatric behavioral health at Montefiore Medical Group, in New York City. Help your infant get the most out of your book time by following these guidelines.
1. Create a routine. Try to make reading a daily affair, even if your sessions last only for five or ten minutes. Your baby doesn’t have a long attention span, but research shows that the time you spend reading to him has a huge impact on his brain development and academic performance later in life, says Jill Kenler, an infant development specialist at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, in Chicago. In a study published in Pediatrics, researchers gave educational materials and children’s books to low- income parents of babies ages 5 to 11 months, and found that by the time the kids were 18 to 25 months old, they had significantly higher vocabulary scores than children who weren’t given books. Reading every day also offers less-tangible benefits: It teaches your kid that you value books, and it creates a positive association between stories and cuddly time with you.
2. Keep her captivated. Babies love bright, contrasting colors and images of familiar objects or people. “Pictures of faces help your baby start to comprehend emotions,” says Kenler. Try “reading” a photo album of images of family, friends, neighbors -- even the dog. “Point to people and say, ‘Mommy looks happy here,’ or ‘That boy seems a little sad,’ ” suggests Kenler. Around 4 months or so, when your child is able to point and grab, she’ll be drawn to books that she can manipulate. Look for soft fabrics, crinkly sounds, or flaps and tabs to lift and pull. “Interactive books will hold her attention, and they can help her motor skills too,” Kenler says.
3. Repeat again -- and again. You may inwardly groan when your baby points to the same Sandra Boynton book ten times in a row, but experts say all that repetition is both exciting and comforting to him. It’s a big developmental milestone when he can anticipate what’s coming next. Plus, when he hears the same word frequently, he’s more likely to store it in his little memory bank for when he’s ready to start talking. Consider the upside: There’s no need to invest in a large library of books, at least in the beginning. You’ll be fine with a handful of choices that your baby can enjoy over and over.
4. Make it a conversation. Want to shake your book time up a bit? Try singing the words on the page or acting out the story’s plot using funny faces or voices. Dr. Briggs also recommends trying to engage in what is often called “serve and return” as soon as your baby is born. Encourage her to mimic what you’re saying or doing, then copy the sounds she makes back to her. This can be especially fun once she starts to babble, usually around 5 or 6 months. (“Did you say ‘bee bee?’ That’s right, this car in the book does go beep beep. This is a blue car, just like the one we have.”)
5. Let him lead. Your main goal while you’re reading is to make sure that your child is having fun. “It’s more important that you enjoy the book together than it is that you actually finish it,” says Pamela High, M.D., director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, in Providence. “If he flips through the back pages first or stops reading halfway through, let him.” It’s also perfectly fine if he starts chewing or tugging on the book. He simply wants to interact with it in every possible way.