Do I really have to read to my baby?


We know that we’re supposed to be reading to our baby every night, but in all honesty it isn’t going very well.  Darren is 8 months old and he doesn’t seem to think books are interesting!  I’ve tried pictures books, board books, and now mostly plastic coated books since he likes to chew on the corners of paper books and they get pretty yucky. I feel as though I have to keep trying to get him to focus and it’s not fun, especially at the end of a long day. But everyone says that this is the way to get him to love reading. Is he destined to be illiterate? What should we do?

Darren’s reading style is not very different than many babies his age, so don’t worry! Before you add “reading to baby” as one more “should” it’s better first to look at the reasons why reading to babies and young children is important. Until a few years ago the idea of reading to young babies wasn’t part of the usual recommendations to parents.  Now it is. As you’ve probably discovered, the recommendation has been a great boon to the book selling business. You now have hundreds of choices in the “chewable book” categories of most bookstores and web sites.  And you really have to buy, not borrow books for really little ones because library books don’t hold up well when babies drool on them. 

The reason for the recommendations is that studies have shown that the later reading skills of children whose parents introduce books early far exceed the skills of those who do not see or hear parents reading.  That makes sense because early exposure to language increases vocabulary, talking to children increases their listening and speaking skills, and exposure to the stories in books fosters their curiosity and interest in books as a source of pleasure.   

There’s a lot more to encouraging literacy than just reading, however. 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, most infant educators say that 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 understand that books are 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 without holding the pages? Babies Darren’s age love to grab and put things in their mouths—why should we expect that a baby will enjoy it when we dangle a book in front of him and tell him he can’t touch? 

Babies are often ready for sleep at the time that parents are trying to read to them.  So instead of reading being soothing, it may actually stimulate them.  Not the best plan for bedtime!

I’d suggest that for now you show Darren books earlier in the day while he is sitting in his high chair, or when he sits next to you on the sofa holding a toy while you read.  Make the interaction fun for both of you, and stop when his interest fades.  Put even more effort into singing songs and and nursery rhymes and playful word games (you know this little piggy, don’t you?)  Show Darren every day that words are wonderful, and along the way he’ll learn that books are a wonderful way of hearing the words you have taught him to love.