A fun way to encourage the growth of language skills and promote later literacy is to read to your baby. Begin reading to your baby when he’s a newborn . . . yes, a newborn! Even in the first few weeks of life, your baby’s little brain is making connections in understanding the rhythm of language, the particular sounds of your native language, and the meaning of voice tones when you read. Reading improves listening skills, memory, and attention span. Each time your baby hears you say a particular word or sing a tune, memory is built up in the brain. Eventually, these memories, or “connections,” become strong enough to create a skill or move your baby forward to achieving a language milestone. An added benefit of reading to your baby is to promote parent/child bonding. Soon, your baby will associate book time with snuggles and lots of love from you!
Keep reading time with your little one short but frequent. Aim for five times a day for about five minutes each. You can adjust the reading time as you pick up on your baby’s cues. Fussing and looking away are indicators that reading time is over. If your baby is breathing calmly, focusing on your face or being quiet, reading time can continue. When your baby is old enough to crawl around, you’ll need to do more to capture his attention while reading. Use funny voices for different characters. Make sound effects for animals, machines, and trains. Exaggerate your facial expressions. Your baby will listen, watch and absorb all you say and do.
Share pictures with your baby as they provide visual stimulation, as well as more opportunities to comprehend and build vocabulary. It is a myth that babies can only see in black and white. They see contrasts in vivid colors, such as a green frog on a light blue background, a brown cat on a yellow background, and a ceiling fan against a white background. Keep this in mind when choosing books.
Newborns can see objects most clearly when they are 8-12 inches from their face. Nature has this built in as the distance between your face and your baby’s during feeding. So, take your cue from nature and hold the book slightly away from your baby’s face when showing him pictures. However, don’t be surprised if your baby stares more at your face while you read than he does at the book. Babies are fascinated by faces!
Sharing books with your baby should be fun, not homework. Combine reading time with the tickling of toes during playtime, a snuggly blanket during quiet time, and happiness from you at all times. Turn off the music, TV and phone so your baby can really focus on the lilt of your voice, the joy you express while reading, and the sounds and rhythms made in your particular language. Before starting, change your baby’s diaper and wrap him up in a warm blanket or set him in a bouncy seat. Sit close to him as you read.
Many parents become dismayed if their baby will not sit still to listen to a book or look at the pictures. Don’t worry about it. Just keep reading! The important thing is that your baby is hearing the language. He will learn proper “book etiquette” soon enough.
Adapted from Boosting Your Baby’s Brain Power, by Holly Engel-Smothers and Susan M. Heim (Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2009).