Do I really have to read to my baby?

I know that I’m supposed to be reading to my baby every night, but instead of it being a pleasant bedtime ritual, it feels like a chore. My baby seems alert and bright but she doesn’t think that books are very interesting. I’ve tried pictures, board books, plastic books (she likes to chew on the corners and the paper books were getting pretty yucky.” I feel as though I have to keep getting her attention and it’s not fun, especially at the end of a long day. But everyone says that this is the way to get her to love reading. What should I do?

The idea of reading to babies is fairly new, and it’s been a great boon to the book selling business because we now have thousands of choices in the “chewable book” categories of most bookstores and web sites. (Well, I’m being a bit cynical here, but let’s face it, library books don’t hold up well when babies drool on them.) Many parents and educators believe that reading to a baby every evening increases the likelihood that the baby will grow up loving to read books to himself.

It’s hard to know if this belief is correct, because so many factors are involved in helping a child learn to love books and to want to read. We know for sure that babies whose parents talk to them and create “conversational” interactions long before their babies actually are speaking words will help their children to communicate more fluently when they do begin speaking. We know that children listen to the rhythm and syntax of the languages they hear around them, because toddlers will imitate the way sentences sound in the language they hear. We know that nursery rhymes and songs introduce a child to patterns and predictability in language and music, and that learning to anticipate what comes next helps children to learn more rapidly. We know that children develop a vocabulary beyond everyday conversation when they hear words in context, the way they do in story books.

So there is much to be said for talking to your baby, singing to your baby, telling stories to your baby, and teaching your baby the words for objects she sees in daily life and in pictures. However, in my opinion, most babies are more receptive to an interaction with a person than with a book. Some babies may love to look at books in the same way a baby likes to look at a toy. But babies can’t treat books as different than other objects that they are allowed to touch. How do you convince a baby that the way to play with a small, square, brightly colored object is to lie back in her parents’ arms and watch and listen while her parent gets to touch? We know that babies love to grab and put things in their mouths—why do we hope that a baby will develop affection for an object that we dangle in front of him and tell him he can’t touch? 

My suggestion is to show your baby books while she is sitting in her high chair or if you are in a situation where she can hold a toy while your read. For now, put your effort into conversation, songs and rhymes. Let your baby know that words are wonderful, and along the way she’ll learn that books are another way of finding the words you have taught her to love.