As soon as your baby is born, his brain begins building the neural connections for reading and writing. Age 0 to 2 is the age most directly connected with a baby's speech development. A new research study found that reading age-appropriate books to your baby before he learns to talk not only establishes a reading habit later on, but correlates with later expressive language abilities at 12–16 months of age. In other words, reading to your infant helps grow his brain.
For parents who can't imagine how to read to an infant, here are some guidelines that will help.
1. Don't just talk to your baby—read to her
Reading aloud increases repetition during a critical period of learning and provides more words and richer grammar for your child to hear so your baby lays down more elaborate circuits than if you just talked to her. Reading aloud, starting at birth, permanently shapes the function and structure of your baby's brain.
2. Make reading multisensory
Reading aloud stimulates more than just language. It stimulates and grows circuitry in many areas of your baby's brain associated with hearing, vision, page turning for motor control, and social/emotional development. Young babies even use their mouths to "experience" the book. Make reading a multisensory event. One parent stimulated large motor skills by walking around with her toddler like a penguin while they read a book about penguins.
3. Turn reading into a conversation
Your baby needs face-to-face contact so he can see your lips as you speak and watch your smiles and expressions. Listen for his coos, body movements, smiles, and lip movement–and then respond back. In essence, you are having a happy conversation with your child while engaging with print.
4. Find a good reading time
Almost any time is a good time to read to babies. At birth, babies detect the sound of your voice even when they are asleep. Reading during nursing is a good time, and after three months, when babies are alert and awake. Read a few minutes at least twice a day, and stop reading when the baby gets restless.
5. Don't relegate reading to books alone
By 6 months of age, you can label a few objects in the baby's nursery and introduce an activity called "Reading Around Baby's Room." Research shows that babies may understand words five months before they can speak them, and that 5-month-olds can recognize and remember a visual stimulus for up to two weeks after seeing it. Write 5–10 words like chair, box, red, hat, and Spot on 5×7 cards and tape them to the object or pet photo. Once your baby starts to show interest in the activity, gradually add more words.
6. Find age-appropriate books
The best books for age 0–2 are: wordless picture books; nursery rhyme books; books you can chant; books you can sing; pattern books (easy-to-read books with predictable, repeated patterns of text); board books (sturdy cardboard books that withstand baby handling); soft cloth books; storybooks; information books; and books with textured illustrations for touching.
J. Richard Gentry, PhD, is an expert on childhood literacy, reading, and spelling development, and the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Baby to Age 7 (DaCapo / Perseus). This article is adapted from the book.