I started reading to all of my children when they were infants, well before they were able to sit up, engage with the book, or probably even understand what the heck I was doing.
My children become interested in books at different times. My first child become very interested in sitting in my lap to read books as soon as he could sit up and control his hands enough to handle the book.
My second child had almost no interest in books at all until he was close to two years old.
My third child was also slow to warm to sitting in my lap to read, instead preferring to play with the book or even get up and run away. She is almost three and JUST NOW getting excited about sitting with a book.
There were times when I questioned whether reading to them when they seemed disinterested was a worthy investment in time and effort.
But now….FINALLY, I am seeing those efforts bear fruit.
My two boys learned to read quickly, and easily. Their teachers say that they have massive vocabularies, and my mom/dad friends marvel at the way both boys are able to express themselves, even as young as they are.
My girl’s language skills are growing with leaps and bounds.
Can I attribute any or all of this to reading to them starting when they were infants, even when they didn’t seem interested? It’s hard to say, with kids, how they will turn out, despite what we do or don’t do.
But here’s what the research says.
Benefits of reading to babies
I don’t think I have to explain to you how important it is to read to your child.
But I will anyway, because the stats just blow me away.
About 80% of a child’s brain forms in the first three years of life, with an average of 700 synapses forming per second. (source) Reading to your baby, speaking to your baby, even talking around your baby, stimulates the areas of the brain that handle language. The more words your baby hears in those first three years, the stronger those connections get.
And while infants don’t seem to be doing much (just lying there on the floor, staring up at the shadows), they absorb every sound that you make. In turn, they use the sounds that they hear (especially those sounds made by other humans) and begin to use those sounds as building blocks for their initial forays of using language of their own.
Reading builds listening and memory skills, in additional to the vocab that they’ll eventually need.
So is it the book itself that makes the difference? Or just hearing the words?
I think from the research, we can conclude that it is the language that is important. How the infant hears it seems to be less important than doing it in one particular way. For example, there is just as much research out there about talking to babies as there is about reading to them.
The outcome of both types of studies is the recommendation that parents do activities around infants and young babies involving speaking. You could look at reading books as a way to speak to your baby without feeling too awkward, or without running out of things to talk about. Further, the books would probably incorporate words and sounds that you might not otherwise use around your baby.
As a parent, you’ll want to both read to your child as well as talk to him.
The benefits go beyond the language
Here’s another neat study to consider. A team reviewed over 2000 mother-child pairs from all over the United States, with children between the ages of 1-3. The data collected from the subjects allowed researchers to come to some interesting conclusions.
First, the study reported that the parents who read to their children the most, also were less harsh with their kids. Next, the kids who were read to the most were also the least disruptive.
Now are we to conclude that reading to kids makes parents less harsh, or kids more compliant? Not necessarily. But you have to look carefully at this and really think about why this is the case. Is it because the families who read the most were better parents? Did the reading help them become better parents? Did the reading somehow make the children more obedient? Did the act of routinely reading books together improve the relationship between the parent and child so that fewer harsh word were needed, because there was less behavior to warrant it?
I hate taking away the headline from a study as truth.
But the data is hard to ignore.
There is a correlation between reading and good things….does it matter if we can’t exactly pinpoint it?
Another example from my own life
We really don’t think too much about the power of our words, how they might be important to babies. My friend Evan’s first son was born prematurely at 26 weeks. There were months where no one really knew for sure if this little boy would survive, not to mention have any sort of quality of life.
In the NICU, the distraught parents spent every waking moment with their child. It was there in the hospital that the doctor’s gave them a couple of novels and instructed them to read to their son.
These weren’t children’s books at all. These were just regular old grown up books, that there was no chance their baby would understand.
So they read to their son, at first feeling very strange about it, reading to a small human enclosed in a plastic case, sometimes wrapped in a blanket and sometimes not. Almost always asleep.
Why do this?
A recent study showed that reading to babies in the NICU does a lot of good for suffering families:
- Reading to their babies helps reduce the rates of postpartum depression and stress in the mothers
- Reading improved both parents’ perceived ability to bond with the infant
- Reading increases the infants’ blood-oxygen saturation during the session and for a while afterwards
Naturally the study was adjusted for the physical needs of the infant (such as whispering vs speaking and the length of time), and whenever possible, the parent touched or cuddled the baby during the session. (source) And certainly for my friends, they read to their son as their doctor recommended.
They both reported later that reading out loud to their boy made it much easier to start talking to him, and engaging with him. Where they felt awkward, they started to feel comfortable. When they didn’t have words of their own to use to talk to him and reassure him that they were there, they could fall back on the words of whatever novel they had standing by. It helped them pass the time, and helped them feel like they were doing something useful, in a time when there was very little otherwise that they could do.
There’s so much we don’t know out there about the connection between a child and hearing his mother’s voice. But it is clear that it is a valuable thing to utilize for the benefit of the family.
But I want to read to my kid….and she doesn’t seem interested at all.
Kids don’t all fall in love with reading at the same time. There are many developmental reasons for it. In the beginning, they may not be able to sit comfortably, reach for the book, or even be able to see it well. Your baby may cry during book time, not because she doesn’t like it, but maybe because she is experiencing frustration, as there is much she wants to do with the book and is unable to.
I think the key is to go slowly, and to avoid forcing the issue or making it into something negative for both of you. And when things don’t go well, don’t be afraid to put the book down for a week and then try again when she’s just a little bit older.
Getting started with a young child
You can’t control how your baby will respond to books. But you can control how you introduce her to them.
When you are reading to a very young child, make sure to set the tone for making reading AWESOME.
First, make sure that reading is combined with positive and comforting touch time. Reading with baby sitting close to you, if she’ll let you, cuddled up in your lap, on your belly, or next to you. Or lay on the floor with her.
Next, don’t be attached to finishing a book, or even reading all the pages. If “reading” with your baby means that you hold the book and baby turns the pages while you talk about what is in the book, then you’ve accomplished your goals for the day.
Make the reading fun. Put your adult pride aside and throw yourself into the book. Make silly faces. Sing songs. Make all sorts of strange and silly noises. Smile and laugh.
And be okay with reading the same familiar books again and again. While it is boring for adults, babies love familiar books and stories, and hearing/seeing the same words again and again will help her learn them.
Finally, work on reading in well….baby steps. Start with showing baby the book. Let her touch it, open it, even chew on it if the book won’t die. Let her explore it. Then move to looking at the pages, touching them, turning them. Read what you can, and then just talk to her about the rest of them.
What about if my child won’t sit with me or listen at all?
If you are getting started late in the game (after baby has enough coordination to make reading hard), you might have to work for a while to get your child to sit quietly with you during a book.
Here’s are some ways to get your child interested if he won’t sit with you for long or at all:
- Get the most interesting book possible. Bright colors. Moving parts. Pop ups. Books that play music. Anything.
- Make the books available to her. Put them on the ground where she can get into them, play with them, touch them, if she wants.
- Get sturdy books so that you don’t have to worry about having to monitor her use of them, or feel the need to discipline her if she doesn’t take good care of the book.
- Do your reading time in short bursts throughout the day. See if there is a time of day that works better for book reading (in the morning, before bedtime, etc).
- Do it consistently. Every. Single. Day. Without fail.
- Take your child to the library or the bookstore, especially when there is story time, so that your child can see other kids sitting quietly for story time.
- Like I said above, make it interesting. I read to my children while standing up or walking around, and then I even act out the parts of the book that allow it, and ask my child to join in. I make up songs. I yell, I whisper. I make ridiculous noises. I act out the parts.
- Try reading to her when she is in a place where she can’t escape, such as the car seat, bath tub, or strapped into the high chair.
- Don’t require that she sit still. At all. Read to her while she is jumping around and playing with other toys. She might not get all the benefits of sitting and reading with you, but she’ll hear the words and the sounds, and that is no small thing.
What if my child screams while I read to her, or does something else that makes it hard for me to read to her (closing the book, grabbing the book, hitting me)?
Then there might be something else going on here. Your goal is to introduce your child to words, and to bond with her. If a book seems to cause your child to act out, or release some other feeling she has inside of her on it, try and see if you can just get her to sit in your lap, so that you can talk with her. Try to find ways to work on that language with her, and cuddle her.
You could also employ some of the other strategies above to prevent her from messing with the book (like reading to her while she is in the bath, etc.
I find that my kids do this sometimes when they are really tired. Books are stimulating, not as stimulating as screen time, but still stimulating. When my second son is too tired to be stimulated any more (or over stimulated), he makes it very difficult to read to him, by making loud noises, kicking me, and generally acting like a nuisance. I take those acts as a sign that it is just time to put the book away, and hurry up to Lights Out time.
You might also consider bringing up the behavior with her pediatrician to get some guidance if you feel the behavior is extreme.
Model the behavior you want to see
You want your baby to be excited about reading? Then show her that reading is important. Sit down with a book of your own on the floor and read. Not to her, but for yourself. It doesn’t have to be out loud. Just read your book. Tell your baby that you are reading, and if she seems interested, see if she will sit by you with her own book.
Read in front of your kids all the time. Turn off the television or your phone, and read to relax instead of decompressing with a youtube video or sending text messages.
This sends a message to kids that reading is a behavior they should emulate, as they will do just about everything that you show them to do. If you never open a book when you have free time of your own, don’t expect your kids to do it.
Read all kinds of books to her
Parents may have differing opinions on this, but I have never tried to dumb-down books for my kids. When my children were babies, I read them books that weren’t picture books. I have always read to them from books that were meant for children older than them, in addition to reading them age appropriate books.
As soon as my children were able to sit still, I started reading to them from chapter books, even though we might only get through a few pages at a time. I also read to them from adult books, naturally editing the content or language to make it appropriate. So long as the book was interesting and full of adventure, the kids followed right along, and didn’t lose interest quickly.
Naturally, they don’t sit still for long, but I still managed to read them a chapter or so in a sitting without too much drama. We always came across words that they didn’t know, but I would stop and ask them about the word and then explain briefly the meaning before moving on.
I think we do kids a disservice when we assume that a book is “too hard” for the child, or “too grown up” or “too complicated.” Kids are ready and eager to learn, even though they might not always behave in a way that demonstrates it.
You are on the right track
If you are reading this article, you are in the right mindset, on the right track. If your child isn’t just loving reading, you aren’t the only one. It’ll take some work on your part to get them there. I think that if you are consistent, and persistent, without making reading something negative, they’ll get there.
And if they don’t fall in love with books, at least they’ll have an amazing vocabulary.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.