Among the many gifts I received from family members and well wishers when I learned that I was pregnant was not surprisingly a large number of children’s books. By the time my son Edwin was born, we had a small children’s library lining the otherwise empty shelves of his nursery. I’m sure our experience isn’t unique—children’s books are common in many infants’ bedrooms, despite the fact that these infants won’t learn to read for several years. This begs the ever-important question of when parents should start reading storybooks to their babies.
Pediatricians will tell you to start right away, when your baby is a newborn. In a famous and often-cited study, researchers found that children whose parents talked to them more (using more words on average) had a distinct advantage in school over children of parents who spent less time speaking aloud. In fact, advantages in word production for infants exposed to more words at home have been found as early as 18 months of age. Based on this research, pediatricians have reasoned that reading aloud is a great way to get babies exposed to more words at a younger age.
We started reading to Edwin every night when he was 2 months old, but not at all because we were interested in his future literacy skills. He was a terrible sleeper and we were desperate for some relief, so we decided to establish a very clear bedtime routine, which included a bath and a book. It felt a bit ridiculous to be reading to a 2-month-old baby who could barely stay focused on a single illustration, but lack of sleep is a powerful motivator. We weren’t very creative either—we just picked one story to read to him over and over again—Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes. I’m not sure about the effect it will have on his future literacy skills since Edwin can still barely utter the word “mama,” but I can tell you that this reading routine has been beneficial in the short term in many ways.
In terms of sleeping, the routine itself didn’t seem to help much—Edwin didn’t sleep through the night until he was 8 months old—but in sticking with it, one book every night has now turned into 3 or 4. At 11 months of age, Edwin is really interested in books, and reading just one before bed is never enough. Whenever we put him down on the floor in his room, he crawls directly to his basket of books and starts pulling them out one by one. He looks at the pictures intently as his daddy reads aloud to him, and already knows how to turn the pages himself.
I can’t say for sure that Edwin’s interest in books has anything to do with the fact that we’ve been reading to him for most of his life, but it couldn’t hurt. Babies are attracted to things that are most familiar to them. There is a reason why newborn noisemakers have settings that imitate bodily sounds like the sound of a human heartbeat—it’s what newborns got used to hearing before they were born, and familiar sounds provide comfort. Stories can be familiar too, and there is evidence that even newborns can actually recognize and prefer familiar stories that their mothers read to them (i.e., to their bellies) while pregnant. The newborns in this research didn’t understand the content of what they were hearing, or any of words in the stories that were read to them. Neither does Edwin. Instead, they likely recognize the rhythm of familiar stories, and Edwin beams when he hears the opening lines to his favorite book: “Pete the Cat was walking down the street in his brand new white shoes…” He bounces with excitement when he sees the cover of the book and even sleeps with a Pete the Cat stuffed toy we bought to go with it. Most importantly, when Edwin is crying, we can recite the words to Pete the Cat (which we’ve memorized after 8+ months of reading every day), and the crying will often subside, and sometimes, even turn into a smile. Again, he probably doesn’t recognize the actual words, just the familiar and soothing rhythm of a story he’s heard every day for most of his life.
My advice here is the same as pediatricians’: Start reading to your baby right away. They’ll tell you it will promote future literacy. That might be true, but I’ll tell you that it will also promote future sanity, which is probably a much more immediate concern if you’re parenting an infant. Pick a story that has a distinct rhythm and repetition (think Dr. Seuss) and read it aloud every night. At some point, your baby will recognize the familiar rhythm and hopefully you can keep it in your back pocket as a Plan B for an especially cranky night. We can hope that eventually this early exposure to books will lead to an avid interest in books, and with two or three books a night you’ll be giving your child that early word exposure that pediatricians so highly value. But for now, having stories recited in the voice of a familiar and loving parent might not only encourage interest in books, but also provide a comforting safety blanket in times of tears.