Cradling her 4-month-old baby in the crook of one arm, the young mother turns the pages of a brightly colored book and pronounces each word of the simple rhyme with great flourish and excitement.
The casual observer might think this a bit silly. After all, an infant cant possibly understand what shes saying.
But the act of reading, even to an infant, nourishes the child on so many levels that comprehension is beside the point. Whats going on here is language development, learning to focus, bonding between reader and listener, relaxation, and fostering a love of books.
Part of what we know now … is that even before babies are born, they start to pay attention and be responsive to language, says Dr. Dale Farran, a developmental psychologist with 30 years experience on issues of early childhood education and a professor at Vanderbilt University.
Do they understand words? No. But they get the rhythm and cadence of the language, Farran says. It makes them understand language is important and gets them in the good habit of paying attention.
As marketing director for The Childrens Book Council in New York and mother of Sophie, 1, JoAnn Sabatino-Falkenstein understands the value of reading to little ones.
It really doesnt matter what you read because babies so love that closeness, she says. They love the sound of peoples voices.
These experts offer these tips for engaging baby in reading:
- Tactile books are good choices for little babies. Anything that offers them new sensations, such as the classic Pat the Bunny, or cloth books with buttons and other objects to touch will best hold their attention. Bright color and bold illustrations help, too.
- Simple books with a repeating structure, rhythm, or rhyme (such as poetry) best keep little ones interest.
- Read with exaggerated expression. If the book has dialogue, change your voice for different characters. Babies delight in drama and silliness.
- Dont feel like you have to read every word, control the story, or even finish it. If baby wants to turn the page or turn the book upside down, let her. Its more important to let her have that experience, Sabatino-Falkenstein says.
- Introducing baby to a book that was a favorite of yours as a child is a wonderful way to connect the generations. For grandparents or anyone who doesnt see a little one often, bringing along that book provides a bond.
- Never force reading time. Sometimes baby will be in the mood, sometimes he wont. Babies have a short attention span. If you get 15 minutes of reading time with a 1-year-old, consider yourself lucky.
Giving children access to books from the time they are small is the best way to raise a happy reader, Sabatino-Falkenstein says.
I think the saddest thing is a pristine book on a high shelf that no one is ever allowed to touch, she says. I much prefer to see the bite marks on Sophies board books, the signs of something well-loved.