You Want Me to Read to My Baby?

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. 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.

More posts by Dipesh Navsaria, M.P.H., M.S.L.I.S., M.D.