I’ve never had parents say exactly these words to me when they come for a well-child visit for their six-month-old, but it’s what the look on their face more or less says. As a pediatrician, I participate in Reach Out and Read, a program that trains health-care providers to give exactly this kind of advice: spend time every day reading together with your children, starting when they’re infants.
It wouldn’t be a very good program, however, if we simply dispensed the advice on what to do and didn’t address how to do it ►click here to watch "How to Read to Babies". For many of you reading this, you may have had the advantage of being read to yourself, or of seeing others around you read to young children, giving you an idea of how to carry out this advice. But for others—you may not know what to do.
For many, being told to ►read aloud might remind us of grade school, where someone read exactly what it said on the page, and everyone else sat quietly and listened. That might work nicely for third-graders, but it’s unlikely that a mouth-everything-in-sight infant or a squirmy toddler is going to follow that plan. Some parents may, when faced with a seemingly unruly audience, assume that their young child doesn’t like being read to—and be discouraged from trying again.
The key is that reading to very young children follows different rules. I’m going to give you permission to not do some things:
- You don’t need to read every page
- You don’t need to read pages in any specific order
- And you don’t even need to actually read what it says on the page.
Let the child hold the book and manipulate it. This means she’ll turn pages back and forth, or go backward, or pick out random pages. She may even mouth it instead of looking at it. This is all normal behavior for an infant or toddler.
You certainly can (and should) point at things on the pages and name them. Even better, when your baby touches or points at something on his own, name it for him so he hears the word. This is also a great opportunity to elaborate a little: “Yes, it’s a boat. A red boat!”
This means you can pick out books that might even be “very advanced” in terms of reading level, because your focus will be mostly on the pictures. The book may even be in a language you don’t understand, but you can still enjoy the images together with your child.
Finally, don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t wish to look at books for more than a few moments. Infants and toddlers have naturally short attention spans. Sometimes they might not be in the mood. It’s OK to move on to something else and try again at another time.
By allowing your child to control what’s being looked at and discussed, you’re more likely to maintain her interest. Don’t worry about the fact that you might never get to read the actual story. When she’s a little older, she’ll be more able to sit and listen to the story itself. What you’re building now is a comfort with books and the association of books with something she’ll treasure above all: your love and attention.
Dipesh Navsaria, M.P.H., M.S.L.I.S., M.D., father of two, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He practices primary-care pediatrics at a federally qualified health center in South Madison....
By Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian
A group of us were sitting around with our babies, bleary and silly with sleep deprivation, and started doing that thing where you say what you imagine the baby is thinking. My friend Andrew looked at his nine-month-old twins (Nate was mouthing a rattle, Kate was watching him) and said, “Kate is all, ‘What are you doing? Chewing on a toy? You’re acting like a baby!’”
When we think about babies, it’s natural to focus on how different they are from us—how helpless and clueless they seem. But the reality is that even very young babies are trying to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing all around them. They also have a growing ability to feel complex emotions, like sadness and fear, very early in life. Surprising? Yes. In fact, it turns out that many parents tell us they don’t fully understand just how early and deeply their babies are affected by their experiences in the world.
Tuning In—a national parent survey conducted by ZERO TO THREE and the Bezos Family Foundation—revealed these and a number of other important “aha” moments for parents. So if you have ever stared at your baby’s enormous bald head and wondered what on earth was going on in there, consider this a sneak peek into five important ways that your young baby is learning from her experiences in the first year of life.
- Your baby can be affected by your moods—and sense how you’re feeling as early as three months old. The Tuning In survey found that almost half of parents (47%) believe this doesn’t happen until one year of age or older. The truth is that babies pick up on your facial expressions and tone of voice—whether you are sad, angry, or happy—right from the start, and they react accordingly. This is why it’s really important to be mindful of your own emotional state. Having healthy ways to deal with stress and other difficult feelings that come up in parenting (and life) helps you cope in ways that don’t impact your baby.
- Very young babies already have very big feelings. Babies can begin feeling sadness and fear as early as three to five months of age. Our research revealed that 42% of parents believe babies begin experiencing these feelings at one year or older. But the fact is that way before they can say their first words, and as early as three to five months old, babies experience a whole range of emotions, like joy, sadness, anger, interest and excitement. Tune in to your baby’s facial expressions, sounds, and gestures and you’ll find clues about how your baby is feeling. When you respond sensitively, she learns that her feelings matter, which builds her trust in you.
- Your baby knows when you’re sharing important information. Even young babies know when you are showing or telling them something you want them to focus on. They pay special attention when you make eye contact, call their name, and use that high-pitched, sing-song voice (“parentese”) that babies love. In fact, research has found that the more you talk to babies using parentese, the more words they learn over the long run.
- Babies figure out what’s going on in the world by watching your reaction. They read your actions and facial expressions to see whether a new person or situation is safe. If you smile at a new childcare provider and tell your child what a good time he is going to have with her, your child will feel safe and happier about this new person. But if you show worry, and keep coming back to check on him, your baby may think that childcare is not such a good place and start to feel worried and unsure, making the transition tougher. So think about how you want your child to feel about new experiences and then act in ways that will help your baby cope.
- Babies can be affected by stressful surroundings as early as six months old. Tuning In found that parents expected this to happen much later. Half of all parents said that the quality of a parent’s care has a long-term impact on a child’s development beginning at age six months or older when, in reality, this starts at birth (and even in utero!)
Danger can come in many forms for young children, from angry faces and reactions, rough handling, big changes in their daily routine, or being overloaded by too much stimulation. There’s even research showing that sleeping babies’ stress levels go up when there is shouting in the home (yet 47% of parents believe this doesn’t affect children until age one). So while it’s natural to have arguments with a co-parent every once and a while, remember that living with ongoing stress and fear can negatively affect children’s development. Surrounding your baby with nurturing relationships sets the foundation for healthy development both now and in the long run.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is the Senior Parenting Advisor at ZERO TO THREE where she translates the science of early childhood for parents.
Rebecca Parlakian serves as their Director of Parenting Resources. ZERO TO THREE is a national nonprofit focused on promoting the healthy development of children from birth to three.
ZERO TO THREE works to ensure all babies and toddlers benefit from the family and community connections critical to their well-being and development. Since 1977, the organization has advanced the proven power of nurturing relationships by transforming the science of early childhood into helpful resources, practical tools and responsive policies for millions of parents, professionals and policymakers.
“The Reading Mother” is an old poem, and I’m not sure when I first heard it. But my favorite line comes to mind whenever I see a mom reading to her child: “Richer than I you will never be—I had a mother who read to me.” Certainly, by that measure, I’m a wealthy person, as are my children.
Reading to children is such a simple thing. Almost anyone can do it. It’s low cost. It’s low tech. Yet, many of us worry that in this digital age full of tablets and smartphones that are often handed over to children, even babies, essential basics such as books and magazines are increasingly shunned.
Decades ago educators cited reading as the most fundamental skill children acquire, and they promoted the idea that reading aloud to children is critically important. Early childhood teachers can quickly spot the students who are read to daily, as they are already on their way to becoming good future readers.
And pediatricians are also speaking to the importance of reading to children—particularly in the first three years of their lives. In a policy announcement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is urging its physician members to prescribe daily read-aloud time for parents and children together. And they say this should start from infancy. Formally adding their voice to the voices of others, doctors will remind parents at office visits not to forget “the basics.” They’ll be telling parents that it’s critical to read, speak, and sing to children at the very beginning of their young lives, because that’s how they acquire vocabulary and other important pre-literacy skills that may determine later school success.
Doctors might also talk to parents about how regular reading is essential to optimal physical development. Research shows that when children are read to, their brain cells are literally turned on. Existing links among brain cells are strengthened. New cells are formed. Reading, as it turns out, is brain food! Maybe it’s even fair to say that no child is completely healthy if he or she has not held a book or heard a story.
In my experience, many parents and grandparents—even the wealthy and well educated—are surprised to hear the research and learn that it’s never too soon to read to babies. The AAP and others point out that low-income children are of particular concern. Studies show that more affluent children hear millions more words spoken, read, or sung than do children from low-income homes. This “word gap” gives low-income children a clear academic disadvantage, which may be apparent as early as 18 months. One easy way to close that word gap is exposing babies to books.
Until very recently, the national conversation about this issue has been mostly a low but persistent hum. Let’s hope that with the AAP and so many others joining in, it will now rise to the level of a clarion call: Let’s read to children. All of us. Every child. Every day. In infancy and throughout childhood—even beyond the stage when they are reading independently.
As the poet said so well long ago, mothers can make their children rich—simply by opening a book.
Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....