How to read with babies by Elaine Reese

New parents hear advice about what’s best for their baby on a daily, even hourly basis. One popular piece of advice is “Read to your baby!” Yet no one ever seems to tell new parents how. It’s not easy to read to a baby, especially a newborn.

I remember the first time I tried to “read” a picture book with Benjamin, my eldest. He was just shy of six weeks old. I had purchased a boardbook version of Caillou (who was not yet a TV star) as his first book. Although I was a first-time parent, I had already logged many hours of book-reading with young children – as a babysitter, aunt, and child development researcher. Yet my first reading session with baby Ben felt awkward and ill-timed. He could barely even focus, and I knew the most he could perceive at that point was face-like configurations on the page.

Kimberly Andrews reads Song of the River to her daughter, Nova

I suspect that many other new parents also feel awkward when reading to their babies. Yet parents persist. We know from the Growing Up in New Zealand study that by the time babies are nine months old, nearly all New Zealand parents report reading books with their babies at least occasionally. Nearly half of those parents started to read when their babies were less than six weeks old.

Make it easier

Here are some tips to help make it easier to read to babies, gleaned from high-quality research studies on what’s best:

Choose books for babies carefully!

The best books for babies have little text, with clear and eye-catching illustrations or photos. Gecko Press’s Jump! is an excellent choice, because it features a single captivating illustration on each page accompanied by a simple sentence, with variations, followed by the word “Boing.” The repetition-plus-variation of sounds makes this book perfect for reading with babies. Other all-time favourites for babies include Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, with its soothing, rocking rhythm and soundplay (try drawing out the word H-U-S-S-S-H while holding your finger to your lips).

Speak clearly, with exaggerated intonation

I know it feels silly at first. Child language researchers call this “child-directed speech.” Dozens if not hundreds of studies show that it is the best way for babies to learn language. Babies are not yet speaking, of course, but they are learning the sounds and rhythms of their native language. They can even understand some words far earlier than you might think – from four to six months, beginning with their own names. Hearing adults repeat sounds and words is crucial for this learning to occur. For instance, when reading Jump! to your baby, play with the way you say the word “Boing” on each page. Try a high bouncy “BOING!” on one page and a sonorous drawn-out “B-o-ing” on another page. Author/illustrator Tatsuhide Matsuoka has helped by displaying the word “Boing” in a new way on each page.

It’s all about the interaction

A common misconception is that more talk is always better for young children’s language development, but it’s actually the quality of that talk that matters most. Interactive Talk is Best. Your baby will benefit from taking “turns” in the conversation well before they can speak any words. Read WITH, not TO, your baby. As you’re saying “Boing!”, watch your baby’s face. Let your baby see your face. PAUSE… WAIT for your baby to respond, even if it’s just an arch of the eyebrow, before you continue. Gecko Press’s Tickle My Ears is another excellent book for prompting interactions with older babies, especially at bedtime. For instance, after reading the opening page:

“This is Little Rabbit.
Tap him on the shoulder – will he turn around?”

Demonstrate tapping the rabbit’s shoulder on the page for your baby while you say, “I’m tapping his shoulder.” Then turn the page (or have your baby help you) and say, “YES! He turned around.” The next time through this book (trust me, it WILL become a favourite), pause and wait for your baby to tap Little Rabbit’s shoulder. You may need to say, “Can YOU tap Little Rabbit’s shoulder?” If your baby does, respond with “Yeah! You tapped his shoulder. Will he turn around?” If your baby doesn’t tap the page, just keep demonstrating the tapping yourself in each reading. One evening your baby will surprise you by pointing a pudgy finger in the general vicinity of Little Rabbit’s shoulder.

Take your time

Don’t feel compelled to finish a book in one sitting. What’s best for your baby is to have a positive, back-and-forth interaction, whether it’s about one page in a book or ten pages. Babies differ radically from each other in their attention spans at different ages. A book-reading routine you worked out with your first baby may not work with your second or third. Your baby will let you know when they’re finished by looking away or crying or thrashing around.

Cuddle up and have fun!

If you are having fun reading, your baby will have fun too. In this first year, you’re aiming for an enjoyable routine that will spark a lifetime love of books.

Postscript: Although my first book-reading session with Ben was not what I had expected, I persisted in sharing picture books with him in short bouts when he was well-fed and well-rested and alert. Baby Ben is now 22 years old, and I’m happy to report that he loves books of all kinds.

More Great Books for Babies

  • Clap Hands by Helen Oxenbury
  • Go, Dog. Go! by P D Eastman, board book version
  • The Noisy Book by Soledad Bravi
  • Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury
  • Tickle, Tickle by Helen Oxenbury
  • Usborne’s Touchy Feely Books – Baby’s Very First Touchy-Feely and That’s Not My ___ series by Fiona Watt

About the author

Elaine Reese is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Otago, who received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Elaine conducts research on how children learn from picture books and everyday conversations. She is an advisor for the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study. Her book for parents, Tell Me a Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child’s World, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

Recent Gecko Press books for babies