What Age Should I Start Reading To My Child?

newborn baby held by mother

Are you pregnant or expecting a child? Are you reading all the stats about the importance of reading on the formations of little brains, language, and even emotional connections to caregivers?

The research on reading to children is astounding. It seems that the more we know about reading to children, the better we understand it to be.

People wonder when they should start reading to their child.

The answer is: IMMEDIATELY. Right away. Basically as soon as you can after birth.

photo of a baby's face close up

Isn’t that a little crazy to read to a child who has just been born?

It might seem that way. Especially to a new parent who has never had a child before. I mean, the child is just lying there. He can’t sit up, can’t follow along, can’t even look at the book.

He won’t get anything out of it, right?

That’s where you are wrong, actually.

Studies have shown that there are massive benefits to even tiny infants (or even preemies who are in the NICU). In cases where stimulation doesn’t have to be completely restricted for infants, reading to the child has actually been shown to have measurable physical benefits (heart rate, oxygenation levels).

Reading to babies in the NICU helps the babies bond with their parents, and handle the stress of being in the hospital.

It also helps them develop their brains. Studies show that preterm infants who are not exposed to language while in the NICU have lower language performance at age two. (source)

Yes, you should start reading to your infant as soon as he arrives

Yes, even the youngest children who cannot sit up and listen to a book benefit from exposure to meaningful auditory experiences.

But it is going to feel strange at first.

When I brought my son home from the hospital, I stayed in bed with him, learning how to nurse him, for almost two weeks. (I was pretty sore, rough birth).

In bed with him, I opened up The Goodnight Train (Sobel/Huliska) and read it to him. He just laid there on his back, not really looking at me, or anything else. I remember looking at that book, and looking at his tiny body, and wondering what the heck I was doing.

It felt like giving a speech to an empty room.

Honestly, it took a long time before I could comfortably read books to my infant, because he didn’t give me any sign at all that he was listening, paying attention, or getting anything out of the book.

mother holding small baby in her lap

But over time, I started to notice things

Eventually though, I could see that he was paying attention. When I was speaking (reading), he would turn his eyes in my direct, or angle his head in my direction. As I read to him, I touched his little body, and kept him close to me.

Reading was about comfort, and cuddling, and love.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but reading was helping me bond with my baby. It was helping us share something together, and stimulate all kinds of hormones in both of our brains. It was probably helping me produce enough milk for him, and helping him get all the nourishment he needed from me.

It was helping him develop pathways in his brain that would later lead to language, and hastening the moments when he would first start to understand my words. It helped him develop those first purposeful squeaks and cries.

Of course, like I said, I didn’t know reading was doing all of that.

I just thought I was doing a good job at momming.

With my subsequent children, I read even more

With my first child, I started him on short picture books, thinking that I would read him books that were made…well…for him.

But with my subsequent children, having seen first hand the benefits of reading to a child from an early age, I pushed a little bit harder. Rather than doing simple picture books with my second son and my daughter, I cuddled with them and read to them from books I was reading for myself.

After all, we read to them to introduce words and language to them. They are little computers, infants and children are. They take in all of the inputs, all of the information, and spend time processing it. I want my kids to have a HUGE vocabulary, so why limit them to simple words (colors, numbers) when they can learn so much more?

And as my children grew out of picture books, I moved towards reading them children’s chapter books as soon as they could sit and listen to them.

How did that work out for me and my kids?

I can honestly say that my children are very smart. They are doing very well in school, and are currently being assessed for the TAG (Talented and Gifted program) in school.

My sons are regularly praised by other parents and teachers for the breadth and complexities of their vocabularies. Both of my sons are reading at the tops of their classes, and are very excited about learning in general.

They are learning to write and spell at an alarming rate.

Is this genetics? Or was it the reading and work that we did? I have no way to know for sure.

mother and baby at the beach, baby waving at the camera

Does it have to be reading? Could it be videos?

This is a great question. The articles out there talk about “meaningful” hearing experiences. We want to expose children to as much language as possible, and the experts do say that children who are spoken with and to at a high and consistent level do build language skills similar to those who are read to.

But could you replicate this with a video, or audiobooks?

I know that most physicians recommend against video or screens for young children and babies. An infant can’t really see well enough to consume video content, and there’s a lot of debate about the impact of lighted screens on brain development.

But as far as audiobooks go, I think that just hearing the sounds without the extra input of having a person in the same space doing the talking probably doesn’t confer the exact same benefits.

An audiobook is a passive experience for a child, unless the child is following along in a workbook or you are stopping occasionally to talk about what happened in an audiobook. But the research is all about hearing words in context, and an audiobook is exactly that.

I have to think that an audiobook is superior to nothing for a child old enough to understand what is happening in the story.

My older kids (kinder and first grade) LOVE audiobooks.

But audiobooks for an infant to develop their brain?

I don’t suppose that audiobooks would hurt the developing brain, but I have to wonder whether they would be as useful to the infant as sitting and cuddling them with a simple picture book. So much about the benefits of the early reading experience come from reading with you, not just hearing the words.

You could put on complex audiobooks, but the infant would probably just perceive the speaking as background white noise. Instead, you might put on some relaxing music, which has also been shown to have beneficial impacts on mood and development.

How much should you read to your child when you first start?

I think the answer is, it depends. How long will your child listen to books? How long until you are tired of reading to him?

Remember, you want to create positive associations with books. Books mean mom and dad. Books mean cuddles and kisses. Books mean mom’s voice (which is special to an infant because she heard it while in your womb).

Books should not mean stress, pain, or struggle. If your child doesn’t want to sit in your lap while you read, then don’t make her.

If your child doesn’t want to hold the book or touch the book, don’t make her.

If your child wants to roll around while you read, that’s fine. She’ll still get many of the benefits of the book even if she seems like she isn’t paying attention to you. (Don’t worry, she is).

Don’t forget, sound to an infant is stimulation. Positive stimulation when it comes from mom, but it is still stimulation. If you provide too much stimulation to an infant, they may start to act cranky, fussy, or tired. You can over stimulate your child with your voice or with music.

Just watch her carefully, and see what she seems to be able to handle. You’ll be able to adjust this activity over time.

I would try to carve out a consistent amount of time each day, and do as much as you both enjoy. If that is just two minutes a time, then so be it. If that is 20 minutes, then so be it.

And then just do your best to enjoy it, because this period of her life goes by so, so fast.

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