Firstly, I think that it is essential to start with the premise that the most important task of parenting isn’t teaching your baby to read. You may think that by ‘teaching’ your baby to read, she will have an “advantage” over other children when she starts school and will thus go on to be a super achiever with a successful career!
No, your most essential task as a new parent (beyond making sure that your baby is fed, clothed and housed!) is to ensure that your baby experiences a healthy and secure attachment with her parents and/or caregiver. This gives babies much deeper “advantages” in life than whether they learn to read early, which include greater confidence and self-esteem, less anxiety, better relationships with childhood peers and healthier relationships as adults.
So what has this got to do with reading to my baby?
Reading to your baby provides her with endless opportunities to bond with you while enjoying the sound of your voice and the warmth of your cuddle. Books provide vital one-on-one time for you and your baby, sending her the message that you value interacting with her and want to be with her. Reading with your baby is a solid, important and wonderful thing to do. Explicitly teaching her to read is unnecessary and research shows that it can in fact be detrimental.
Babies thrive on being held and spoken to. From the first months of her life, your baby will be comforted and soothed by hearing your voice, so the books you choose should be books that you enjoy reading. Cuddle your baby as you read; she won’t understand what you are reading, but she will recognize the sounds and rhythm of language and to feel that cuddling with you and reading books is a comforting and enjoyable thing to do.
Are there any benefits beyond bonding?
Yes, there are other benefits to reading which can help your baby to develop a life-long love of reading. Through the sound of your voice and the warmth of your body, your baby will come to think of reading as a pleasurable activity.
On an ‘educational’ level, books provide the perfect opportunity for babies and toddlers to learn about speech patterns, phonics and how to make sounds. Every time you read to your baby, you reinforce basic reading concepts, such as turning pages and following text from left to right. There are numerous studies which confirm that reading to babies not only supports speech and language development, but overall intelligence as well. When you read to your baby, you set the stage for a life-long love of reading.
What books should I read to my baby?
Newborns see things best from about 15-20cm away — or the distance from your face to your baby’s while you’re holding her. So it’s best to select books with high-contrast images (black-and-white illustrations) and patterns, for example stripes, dots, and checkers.
The best books for babies emphasize rhythm, rhyme and repetition, such as nursery rhymes and books with patterned language. Books for babies usually have minimal text and have pictures of other people, especially other babies as they recognize facial features and expressions. Your baby will also enjoy seeing familiar objects like cars and toys, or people doing things that they have had some experience with in their daily routine, such as getting dressed or taking bath.
When reading to your baby, it is important to understand that you are doing two things; helping with language acquisition – which is definitely an important developmental task – and bonding with your baby. You are not teaching them to read, which is a neurological and cognitive task, and one which is not developmentally appropriate for a baby or toddler’s brain.
Don’t get “stressed” about what and when you read to your baby or if other parents are doing it more often or ‘better’, the most fundamental task is to create a healthy and secure attachment with her, and reading with her is just one of the many and varied ways that you can achieve this.
Bernice Kidd is the Founder and Managing Director of online children’s bookshop http://2littlegirls.co.za/ and direct-selling company 2littlegirls@home. Both companies are based in South Africa. Bernice is passionate about encouraging a love of reading in young children and aims to provide guidance for parents when choosing the books that will help to instill a life-long love of books.