Tips for using Books with Babies and Toddlers
When to Start Reading to Babies
“He’s not interested in the pictures yet –I’ll wait until he’s older.”
“She doesn’t understand what the words are, so reading seems like a waste of time.”
If you are a parent, you may have had thoughts similar to these statements above. In the blur of activity that accompanies a baby’s first weeks and months, reading may seem like less of a priority. But the reality is that babies benefit from reading stories with their caregivers from day one1. As someone with a PhD in Language and Communicative Disorders who is a licensed speech-language pathologist, I knew I should start reading from day one but as a new parent, those early newborn days are no joke. I think my son was probably two months old before we had settled in enough to add reading. And that’s okay. Even if it’s not every day, read four times a week. If you didn’t start on day one, start today. It’s never too late to read more with your child.
Benefits of Reading to Babies and Toddlers
Reading books together provides time to connect with your baby socially and emotionally, as well as providing them with stimulating visual scenes and rich language experiences. Reading together exposes children to vocabulary words they might not hear otherwise and sentence structures that are different from the way we typically speak in conversation. The more kids read the more their vocabulary and language skills grow, which in turn leads to more reading. This is called the Matthew Effect2 – those who read frequently get better at the skills that support reading which leads to better and more frequent reading experiences. This snowball effect of language and academic gains starts with reading to our kids when they’re very young.
With babies and toddlers, they may not be able to sit on your lap and listen to a whole story, but that’s okay! You don’t have to feel like you have to read each word on every page. Each time you “read” the book may look different. You can label just the animals on the page, or just read one to two pages and be done. Or sometimes your baby may just want to flip the pages (and chew on the corners). That’s still part of developing literacy skills for your baby.
How to Read to Babies and Toddlers
Here are some suggestions from the mom of a 16-month-old who is also a speech-language pathologist. I hope these strike a reasonable middle ground between what’s ideal (from a speech-language pathologist’s perspective) and what’s actually manageable (from the perspective of a mom who’s barely hanging on some days).
1. Invest in durable books.
Babies need to explore their environment with their hands (and mouths). Look into getting durable books that they can (literally) chew on, like good-quality board books. I love these Indestructible books for my son. Babies can fold them, crinkle them, and chew on them and the pages stay intact. Lift-the-flap books are both interesting and interactive and the ones with felt flaps are more durable than the paper ones. The concrete experience of interacting with tangible books connects with babies’ brains in a way that digital pictures, stories on video, or book apps just can’t.
2. More comments, and fewer questions.
It’s so natural to ask questions about the pages or stories. Especially for the little ones. We want to help them build their vocabulary by labeling everything. “Where is the bear?” “Do you see the train?” “What’s this?” Think about it from your child’s perspective: constant questioning can feel tedious and might make them want to avoid books. We want to help build their love of books first and the language and development will follow.
So try and limit the demands placed on them during reading. Let them lead the interaction. If they want to flip the pages forward and backward and forward and backward, that’s okay. If they have a favorite page that they go back to constantly, see how many different ways you can change up that page. Use a funny voice, paraphrase the text, read the text, comment on the pictures, and use “I wonder…” statements. “I wonder why Mustache Baby wants to be a cowboy.” “I wonder what Mustache Baby will dress up as next?” Those kinds of comments invite children to interact instead of demanding it. Reduced demands make the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved.
3. Physically interact with the pages.
This is primarily for younger babies but can be applied to older, more verbal kids as well. If your child doesn’t have many expressive words, think about how you can use gestures and actions to facilitate a similar back-and-forth experience that words provide.
One of my son’s favorite books is Do Not Wash This Bear (by Sam Hay). Every time the text says, “Do not wash this bear”, we wag our fingers back and forth. He quickly picked that up and even though he doesn’t have the expressive words to say it with us, he is still interacting with us and with the text. With this book, we also blink along with the bear, jump our fingers down the stairs, and blow raspberries when Daddy’s back is turned.
Creative Ways to Make Reading Fun for Babies and Toddlers
Here are some other ideas for using these gestures to help your child connect with the story.
- Knock on closed doors.
- Tickle your baby’s toes along with the monster in the closet.
- Splash your hands when the fish splashes.
- Wave hello or goodbye to the characters.
My son will do these types of gestures even without the book when he hears those words (like “splash”). This tells us he has learned the word and the concept through the experiences of reading the book, even before he can say the words.
Best Books for Babies
The best books for babies are ones that you and your baby enjoy exploring together. Guess what? You can start building your book collection for little to no cost. In fact, Dolly’s Parton’s organization, the Imagination Library, will start sending your child books for free from birth through age 5 if you live in an area served by them. Check out the website to see if your child is eligible!
In general, experiences with books don’t have to be expensive. I encourage you to explore the library, raid garage sales, and join the Imagination Library to build your collection. Getting books into the hands (and mouths) of babies leads to what can be a lifelong love of reading.
- Dickinson, D. K., Griffith, J. A., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2012). How reading books fosters language development around the world. Child development research, 2012. https://downloads.hindawi.com/archive/2012/602807.pdf
- Duff, D., Tomblin, J. B., & Catts, H. (2015). The influence of reading on vocabulary growth: A case for a Matthew effect. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58(3), 853-864. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610292/