Tips for reading with babies under 1

As a literary champion and paediatrician, Dr Alyson Shaw believes it’s never too early to start reading with your kids. But while a toddler will hang on your every word (and if you miss a word, you’ll be sure to know!), it’s not always easy to know whether you’re engaging your newborn or child under the age of 1.

Dr Shaw began from birth with her eldest daughter – now a teen and, of course, a bookworm. Rather – her husband did. “As I was navigating the transition to full-time milk supplier, my husband found that what he could give our baby, apart from clean diapers, was storytime,” she writes in a recent article on the Huffington Post. “By the time her umbilical stump had fallen off, they had finished Harry Potter, everything by Barbara Reid, and fifteen rounds of One Gray Mouse.”

As you may have experienced, and as Dr Shaw points out, in those very early days, your child may not offer much encouraging feedback.”But at birth, an infant’s vision is focused enough to see her parent’s gaze from breastfeeding distance, and it was often clear that she was studying our faces as we spoke, sang, and read to her,” she says. “Newborns can recognize their mother’s speech patterns at birth, too, and she would pause in her sucking, as if to say, “I’m listening. Tell me more.”

We’d all love to raise readers, and we’re becoming increasingly aware of the importance of doing so, but if you’re struggling to engage your newborn or young baby with books, these tips may help.

  1. Babies under 7 months react best to books with little to no text. An ideal board book for children aged under 1 would include one object per page – you will find as they become older (between 7 months and 1 year) hearing something they recognise will reinforce their vocabulary.
  2. Choose books with high contrast, bright and bold illustrations to capture their attention. Babies under 6 months will respond particularly well to black and white books -black and white images with sharp outlines are much easier for a baby to see in the first few months of life when it is hard for them to focus, and hard for them to differentiate colour.
  3. Opt for books with manipulatives (lift-the-flap, puppets and peepholes). Research suggests that giving young child opportunities to get involved in book reading by unfolding pages and lifting flaps may aid engagement and interest.
  4. Remember to use the tone of your voice to inject animation into the book. As well as repeating the book over and over again, try using the same voices, each and every time.
  5. Don’t replace reading time with screen time – something Dr Shaw is passionate about. “In my clinic, it’s infrequent that a parent shows up with a book in their diaper bag, though I try to ensure they all leave with one,” she says. “What most parents do have is a hand-held screen. I’ve even seen babies with their own smartphone MacGyvered to their pacifier lanyard. While these devices haven’t been around long enough for us to know their long term effects on young children, it’s clear that the best Facebook for babies is their parent’s face and a favourite book.”
  6. Finally – and most importantly – cuddle your child whilst reading to them – in these early months, reading is much more about reinforcing the bond between parent and child than it is about raising a reader.