7 Reasons Why You Need To Read To Your Infant
M any people wonder when they should start reading to their baby, if at all. The answer might seem obvious to some, but to the rest of us, it’s unclear. You may find yourself asking, If I start too early, will my child be sick of books by the time she is old enough to understand the content? Will I turn her off from books? Or, If I start too late, will it be a struggle to make my child love literature? Will she have the attention span to finish a book cover to cover? These are all relevant and important questions. My guess is that many of us are not introducing books early enough, though there is no magic age when one should start, and it also depends on the infant.
I never gave it much thought until I had my own son. I always knew reading would be an important part of my children’s upbringing, but as to the specifics of how I would make that happen, I had a “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” mentality. Then, when my sister had her son about a year before my little guy came into the world, I was surprised to find that she had started reading to him when he was about five months old, and confessed that she wished that she had introduced books even earlier. “What’s the point of reading to such a young baby?” I initially thought. I suppose in my subconscious I had imagined reading to a young toddler who was beginning to talk and who could interact with a book, but not to an infant.
As the weeks went by and my sister sent video after video of my chubby little nephew with his books, I began to witness the fruit of my sister’s labor and effort of reading to her baby. Though he was still quite young and could barely sit up by himself, Kai was indeed responding to his books. He would coo, point, and reach out to pull a tuft of fur or stroke a bumpy tire. When he was about ten months old, I watched in amazement as my sister would name an animal and then he would point to the correct animal. He couldn’t even speak real words yet, but he understood what was being read to him. My nephew is a genius! I proudly thought.
My sister’s literary path with her son inspired me to do the same with mine. I wanted my son to be just as responsive and engaged with his books at such a young age. I could clearly see how literature was an excellent cognitive exercise for my infant nephew, how it developed his vocabulary, and how it challenged his motor skills.
Maybe I became a little too enthusiastic, but I started reading to my son when he was about two and a half months old. Yup, that young. Too young? Well, perhaps, but it definitely didn’t do any damage, nor did it kill my son’s love of books. Basically, if there is one thing you can take home from this article, it is this: it is never too early to start! I’m not saying that you have to start reading to your little one on the day he is born, but again, there is nothing wrong with doing so!
My main reason for starting so early was that by the time my son was about two months old, I was worried that I wasn’t stimulating him enough and as a new mom, I honestly didn’t know what else to do with him at that age. I thought he would sleep most the day (so I had heard that’s what newborns do), but that just wasn’t Elias! Besides putting him under his mobile or on his play mat, and giving him baths and massages, how on earth does one entertain such a little person who really can’t do much other than just lie there and look? “Well, just lying there and looking is about all that is required to listen to a story,” I thought. So, I figured I would entertain my son in the same way I entertain myself when bored: by reading.
Was there any value at all in reading to my son at such a young age? Absolutely! Before I go further, however, I should mention a few important background points. Though I’m a proud parent just as most parents are, I’m in no way trying to brag about my son, but I must mention for the sake of this article that by two months old, my son could hold up his own head and was comfortable being in a sitting position on our laps. He was also very alert and made excellent eye contact. I believe these milestones did help him to listen and appreciate his books a little more. By sitting up and holding his head comfortably upright by himself, he could view the pages better. Because he was alert and making eye contact, I knew that he could listen and follow pictures being pointed out on a page. I believe these milestones are important to consider if one expects any kind of response from reading to an infant.
So, what benefit is there to reading to young infants?
- Vision benefit: By holding up a book in front of a young infant, the parent helps the baby learn to focus her eyes on single objects and small details. The baby will begin to be more aware of color, contrasting colors and patterns, designs, and shapes. She will begin to distinguish objects and other subjects from one another on the page. It will also help her to be more observant and make more sense of the new world that has suddenly appeared before her eyes.
- Emotional/psychological benefit– We’ve known for a long time that not just young infants, but even babies in the womb benefit from hearing sound, especially the human voice. It helps their cognitive and emotional development even more when they are being spoken to. Put a baby in a room full of talking strangers and she probably won’t respond much. Come close to a baby’s face and talk to her, and she’ll immediately start moving her arms and legs in excitement and start “talking” back. Babies, just like adults, need the emotional reassurance that they are important enough to be spoken to. Being read to does the same thing- your baby will know that you are reading to her, that you are communicating something important to her! The warm sound of your voice is comforting, and your baby will begin to realize that your voice is somehow related to the pictures on the page. This is one of the first steps of literacy!
- Language benefit– Listening to a story helps develop a baby’s language; their entire first year of life is spent processing sounds and intonations. It is essential that we make an intentional effort to talk to our babies, even when sometimes it seems that your little one is ignoring you! It’s amazing how much babies are listening, even when we don’t think they are. A baby’s ability to suddenly say a word or two doesn’t happen overnight- it’s the result of months spent listening! If we don’t provide language for our infants to hear, how can we expect them to be early talkers? It works the same with anyone learning a language; one will most likely never become proficient in another language if he does not spend time immersed in the language he is trying to learn. A huge part of language learning is just listening. In TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) terms, this called the silent period, when it appears that one doesn’t know a language at all as there is little language production or output, but really, one is listening-processing and internalizing everything. Trust me, the wheels in your little one’s head are turning- we just can’t see them!
- Listening/attention span benefit– Listening to a story helps a baby, well, just…listen! Listening with patience for any length of time is an essential skill that must be taught to babies. Even though babies are listening all the time, most babies are not born good Heck, most adults are not good listeners! If introduced early enough and with patience and time on your part, the more likely it will be that your older infant or toddler will sit through a book…or two…or five! And the wonderful thing about this is that your infant won’t just learn to listen to stories, but his listening skills will transfer to other life skill situations, such as listening to instructions, and focusing and paying attention in school. We’ve all heard the warnings and reports by now how today’s digital and media influence is negatively affecting children’s creativity and attention spans. I guarantee that the more we turn our kids on to activities such as reading and listening to classical music, the less we will have to tell them to put away the tablet or turn off the T.V. Just last night, my 11 month old son, Elias, had a play date with his one year old friend, Danny, an adorable and very intelligent little man. Danny’s mom is a wonderful mother, but she does not read to her son. When Elias approached her with a book, snuggled in her lap to be read to, and began to repeat words she was reading from the book, she became excited and then attempted to read to her son. Danny, on the other hand, was disinterested, kept wandering away, and his mother became a bit frustrated with him. I should also mention that in comparison, my son is much more energetic and more easily distracted than Danny, so one would expect that Danny would be the one to sit and listen to a story as opposed to Elias. Of course this is just one situation and what ensued does not mean that every child who begins to be read to at a later age will react the same way as Danny did (though I have seen the same apathy being played out countless times by children who do not get an early start to literacy), but again, the benefits of starting early are priceless. I strongly believe that my son’s ability to focus, comprehend, and just simply enjoy a story has little to do with IQ or personality, and more to do with his early start to literature and my husband and I making reading a daily habit. Simply put, it is nature vs. nurture being played out, which brings me to my next point:
- Habitual reading benefit: Introducing books earlier and on a regular basis will set your child’s reading foundation for the rest of his life. When introduced early, there most likely will be no difficult transition of getting your child to like books. Your child will simply never know what it’s like to not have books in his life. Reading will be a way of life for her, she will grow up not being able to imagine what life would be like without books. If she has a reading lifestyle as an infant, she will have a reading lifestyle as a child, then as a teenager, and then as an adult. Amazing! And you really don’t have to do much! Just pull out those board books for a fifteen minutes a day, surround your child with books, and you have given your child a priceless skill that will open doors for him for the rest of her life! Since I introduced books to Elias at such a young age, by the time he was about five months old, he already knew how to interact with his books. He had seen me feel the textures of his touch- and- feel books and lift the flaps of his lift-the-flap books countless times, so he started to mimic my actions. It was so exciting to see such a young baby begin to respond to his books in a tactile way! He went from being a passive listener to a responsive listener so quickly.
- Cognitive benefit: This one is pretty obvious, but it’s a good reminder nonetheless. Simply listening to a story and looking at a book stimulates a baby’s brain. Her brain will begin processing the pictures, sounds and tones of the words being read, and different textures of the pages. She will also begin to realize that the pictures and words are communicating a message, a first step in realizing that there are various ways to communicate. All of this is just plain good brain exercise, helping your baby to think, process, speak, and respond and communicate. Also, let’s not forget how enriching even the simplest of board books can be! This mostly applies to older infants (but again, it’s never too early to start!), but books are one of the easiest ways to start teaching little ones colors, counting, simple vocabulary, shapes, patterns, manners, concepts, etc., all within a meaningful and appealing context. Finally, books help develop a baby’s comprehension skills, another cognitive exercise, especially when the books are read repetitively. Ok, let’s be perfectly honest- you might get bored with reading the line, “Is baby in the boat?” (Zoom, Zoom Baby!, Karen Katz, 2014) the umpteenth time, but your little one won’t! Remember, she has an entire language and world to learn- there is just so much for her to process, and everything is new to her! She needs the repetition to solidify what she is processing, and to help her remember what she has already begun to learn. What will make the repetition more exciting for you is when you begin to see that your infant has indeed understood something of what you have read. As your little one grows, you’ll see that maybe she has remembered from which direction to lift a flap, or maybe she’ll begin to begin to pronounce some words from the story, or even begin to make some text-to-world connections and point out objects in her world that she recognizes from a book. I remember going on my daily walk with my son when he was about a year old and he suddenly pointed and said, “Truck!” I knew he had learned that word from his book, Touch and Feel Truck, one of the driest reads for me as a parent, but then suddenly one of the most exciting since I knew he was thinking about the story and making a logical connection. The more a child develops his comprehension skills, the better. Not only is it an important academic skill necessary for success in all subjects, but it’s a life skill, imperative for survival.
- Motor benefits– Finally, infant books are fantastic for developing a baby’s kinesthetic skills and hand-eye coordination. Lifting flaps is a fun and challenging mobile exercise for younger infants, helping them to improve their digital dexterity. Even if a book doesn’t have flaps or any kind of bell or whistle to manipulate, just learning to turn a page is an important coordination skill. When babies are challenged, they are not bored. When babies are not bored, they are generally not fussy. Thus, a baby who is stimulated is a happy baby! Babies love to learn new skills, so encouraging your infant to tangibly engage with a board book is a wonderful way to offer her a new challenge. Board books also offer many opportunities for little ones to interact kinesthetically with a story, encouraging them to mimic hand and body motions. Forget the idea that reading requires one to sit on the couch or bed! Remember, many people are kinesthetic learners, and many children acquire vocabulary and content best through movement! Responding through movement is just one other method of communication, not to mention super fun! Of course only older infants will begin to mimic movements, but still, demonstrating hand or body motions to even young infants helps them to understand that language can be nonverbal.
So, if you’ve had any doubts about reading to your infant, hopefully by now you are convinced that it won’t be wasted time; in fact, it’s important to read to your baby! The time to establish a reading routine in your baby’s life is now. It’s never too soon and it’s never too late to start! The cognitive, emotional, lifestyle, and physical results are substantial, setting the foundation for the rest of your little one’s life. Who would have thought simple board books could develop so many skills? Truly amazing!