No matter how much you love books and value early literacy, reading to children can be filled with frustration. When they’re babies, it doesn’t seem like they’re paying attention most of the time. Maybe they even fall asleep when you’re reading. Then they start to get wiggly, turning the pages whenever they feel like it, refusing to sit still, and even chewing on the books. And then when they’re finally engaged, they're begging you to read the same story for the tenth time in a row until you can't even stand to look at the book.
Maybe it feels like you should just give up and try again when they’re older. But don’t give in to frustration and uncertainty. If you are reading to the children in your life, you are already on the right track!
Reading Aloud in Pregnancy
So when should you start reading to your child?
Ideally, in the womb.
Research shows that babies’ hearing is fairly well developed by around the sixth month of pregnancy. In fact, by the end of the second trimester, babies can hear, distinguish, and show preference for certain sounds that they associate with comfort and security, particularly their mother’s voice. In a fascinating study, babies who had been read to by their mother while in utero not only showed a preference for her voice after birth, but also demonstrated familiarity with the text that had been read to them. As John Medina wrote in Brain Rules for Baby (2014), “Newborns have a powerful memory for sounds they encountered while still in the womb in the last part of gestation.” This memory brings them comfort after they are born. So when you read or talk to your young baby, even though he or she doesn’t yet understand what you are saying, you are providing comfort that is built upon the connection you established during pregnancy.
What to Read: Whatever you want. There’s no need to read children’s books—unless you love them and want to read them. You can read aloud whatever you are currently reading—a novel, the newspaper, your emails. The most important thing is that your baby is exposed to your voice.
Reading Aloud to Babies
Let’s say that ship has sailed. You didn’t have the time or opportunity to read to your baby in utero. What now?
Start reading! The good news is it’s never too late to start reading to the children in your life. At every stage, there are tremendous benefits of reading aloud. In fact, as Caroline Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez explain in their fabulous book Baby Read-Aloud Basics (2006):
When you read to your baby, you are giving your child some of life’s greatest gifts: the cuddly, loving warmth of a close, one-to-one daily read-aloud time, an enriched vocabulary that forever expands the mind, a knowledge of everything about books and all that can be learned from them, and a motivation and love of reading that will lead to a happy, successful life.
When babies are very young (from birth to around two months of age), the main purpose of reading is to bond reader and baby, providing comfort, security, and a feeling of love. Since babies spend most of their time (about 75%) sleeping at this point in their lives, you may find it difficult to fit in read-alouds during waking hours. Don’t worry—you can actually read to your baby while he or she is sleeping. That’s because, at this early stage, there’s no difference between the brainwaves of a sleeping baby and a baby who is awake. Even when they are asleep, according to Blakemore and Ramirez, babies’ brains are “busy making new brain cell connections in response to your reading aloud.” Plus, whether awake or asleep, being read to will help to build your baby’s listening skills, which are key to learning throughout life.
What to Read: Just like during pregnancy, you can read anything you want at this stage. The key is for your baby to hear your voice. (If you read a book to your baby repeatedly during pregnancy, now would be a great time to reintroduce it.) You don’t need to choose a book with pictures. Newborns can only see about eight to ten inches in front of their faces, and they have poor color vision. That means they won’t be looking at the pictures. But if you are holding a baby close enough to your face when you read aloud, he or she will watch you.
If you do choose a children’s book, a book of nursery rhymes is a great option: babies appreciate the reassuring, melodious cadence of your voice as you read these rhymes. Plus, these will be some of the earliest rhymes you will say together with your baby when he or she is older. A few of my favorite books of rhymes are Iona Opie's My Very First Mother Goose, illustrated by Rosemary Wells; Tomie DePaola's Mother Goose; and Pío Peep by Alma Flor Ada, F. Isabel Campoy, and Alice Schertle, illustrated by Viví Escrivá, a bilingual (Spanish-English) book of rhymes.
Around two to four months, save your reading for the time when your baby is awake, and focus on illustrated books. Vision begins to develop during the third trimester of pregnancy, but visual development continues all the way until around age one, at which point it is almost as mature as adult vision. And looking at illustrations as they are read to helps babies to improve their visual skills.
By around two months, babies can see about eighteen inches in front of their face, and their color vision has improved. They’ll benefit from having the opportunity to observe—and react to (even if subtly)—both the reader and the book. At this point, look for illustrations with bold black-and-white designs or bright, contrasting colors. Small, intricate details will be lost on young babies.
Although you may not feel that your baby is interested in your read-alouds, remember, as Lisa Murphy explains in Lisa Murphy on Play (2016), that what you are doing now “sets the stage for an enjoyment of stories as [children] grow up and begins the ritual of appreciating, listening, looking, and cuddling up with a book.” Plus, your read-aloud practice is gradually improving your baby's attention span and memory, meaning that the experience will only become more rewarding over time.
What to Read: During your baby's early months, try board books with large black-and-white designs like Tana Hoban's Black & White or brightly colored illustrations like Lois Ehlert's Color Zoo or Eric Carle's Do You Want to Be My Friend?.
From around four to eight months, babies become increasingly vocal and wiggly. They understand more words every day, and they start to babble back at you. They are also gaining mobility, and they are teething. All this means that the read-aloud process just got a lot more exciting—and frustrating. Your baby will probably start reaching for the books you are reading and chew on them. I know this is painful for those of us who are book lovers, but—repeat after me—it is OKAY. Babies explore their world through their mouth at this stage, and as they learn about books, they will understandably want to hold them and put them in their mouth. This is where board books come in. Save your beautiful hard cover picture books for a more quiet time, and rely on these hardier versions when your baby is most active. And remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit; the worse shape a book is in, the more loved it is.
This stage is a great time to begin engaging your baby in the reading process. Though the babbles won’t mean much at this point, when your baby starts talking while you read, pause your reading and respond to the babbles. You can also ask questions about the story or illustrations, pause, and then answer those questions. Babies’ vision also continues to improve from four to eight months, and they can now recognize details. So, it’s time to pull out your favorite, beautifully illustrated picture books.
What to Read: Now that your baby is getting involved in the reading process, it is a great time to introduce lift-the-flap and touch-and-feel (sensory) books. Some of my favorites are Eric Hill's classic Where's Spot? and the books in DK's Baby Touch and Feel series, including Animals. You might also like the Indestructibles series of baby books, which are made from a rip-proof and waterproof material. Try The Itsy Bitsy Spider from that series—you can even read it with your child in the rain and act out the familiar rhyme.
Babies also love to look at other babies—both photographs and illustrations. The Global Babies series of board books from the Global Fund for Children features photographs of babies from around the world, and Making Faces asks little ones to identify the emotions of other babies. Helen Oxenbury's soft, charming illustrations of babies in books like Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes and Clap Hands are also perfect for curious baby readers.
From eight to twelve months, your baby’s mobility, independence, and language skills continue to grow. Babies may pull books off the shelf to look through themselves, and they will interact more than ever before with the books you are reading by pointing at illustrations and gesturing.
As you read, follow your baby’s lead instead of succumbing to frustration: talk with your baby about the illustrations he or she is pointing to, and when your baby turns the page or closes the books prematurely, move on. Remember that your baby does not need to sit still on your lap or at your side in order to benefit from being read to. Let your baby crawl around or play with toys. Just as long as the TV is off, your baby will still be listening to you as he or she engages in other activities.
What to Read: Remember, as Jim Trelease notes in his outstanding Read-Aloud Handbook (2013):
Needless to say, plot is not going to be a factor for infants and young toddlers. For them the ideal read-aloud floats on its sounds.
So, look for books with wonderful rhymes and songs that you can sing to your baby. The choices are ENDLESS, but here are a few of my favorites: Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson; Time for Bed by Mem Fox, illustrated by Jane Dyer; Row, Row, Row Your Boat by Jane Cabrera; Baby Beluga by Raffi, illustrated by Ashley Wolff; and Pajama Time by Sandra Boynton.
Also try wordless picture books (like Peggy Rathmann's Good Night Gorilla and Alexandra Day's Carl's Birthday, books that reflect babies’ everyday life (Baby's Firsts by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by Michael Emberley), and books that label objects (like Richard Scarry’s word books).
The second (upcoming) part of this article will focus on reading aloud to toddlers and preschoolers. In the meantime, if you'd like more information on this subject, check out the resources I consulted to write this post:
Baby Read-Aloud Basics (2006) by Caroline Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez
Brain Rules for Baby (2014) by John Medina
Lisa Murphy on Play (2016) by Lisa Murphy
The Read-Aloud Handbook (2019) by Jim Trelease