Babies and toddlers are such appealing creatures (much of the time). Think of all the serious, critical work their brains are doing while they are drooling, grinning, babbling, and being so irresistible in the process. The mental development is systematic and intricate, but we get the delight of interfacing with this small, soft, round person who constantly rewards us by responding and growing as we in turn clap for them and vocally encourage.
There is something especially powerful about interacting with these growing little ones through books. Profound mental development takes place during infancy and childhood, and this early life stage is an important opportunity for parents to help their child reach his/her often great cognitive potential. We know we’re supposed to talk to our children, which is how they develop language. Setting toddlers in front of Nickelodeon for hours will not accomplish the growth that takes place during a walk outside where adult and child discuss birds, worms, and cars. Yet there is special value in the medium of books that can help the parent maximize the child’s development.
"Profound mental development takes place during infancy and childhood, and this early life stage is an important opportunity for parents to help their child reach his/her often great cognitive potential."
Reading aloud is a privilege in a couple of different ways. First, it has been only in the last few decades that such a variety of books for any age of child has been so accessible. Many writers and illustrators add to the volume of stories each year, and there is so much of high quality to choose from, free at libraries or reasonably priced on Amazon. Second, not all of us have the time to read, since many moms return to the workforce a few months after their babies are born. But there is such a big return on investment with this activity that even parents squeezed for time might consider working it in to the day.
For those who do have the inclination and especially the time to read to infants, you can start as young as four months. You might be skeptical that the benefit has anything to do with the books–perhaps it is Mom or Dad’s voice and presence the infant enjoys. Yet, a parent can read favorites (perhaps cloth books that rattle and squeak, such as “Bunny Rattle”) several times a day, and a baby may appear to be paying attention.
As your baby gets older and gets used to being read to, the books can increase in complexity. For example, you might be reading a book such as “Toes Are to Tickle” when he or she is six months old. As you re-read your baby’s favorites, he or she may begin to really like the process and respond. Your baby might do that cute thing where he or she picks up books and browses through them around nine months, while still putting them in the mouth. And yes, you can try starting them on Goodnight Moon around this point.
At a year, your baby might even appreciate alphabet books or book series that highlight each letter of the alphabet, with objects and sounds. Your child can surprise you with what he/she picks up from those.
Closer to two, you can get more verbally interactive. There are “I Spy” board books for toddlers featuring simple rhymes prompting children to spot specific objects amongst colorful collections. There are also sticker books with hundreds of photographs of everyday items. The topics in these books seem mundane. But because of the response from the little listener, you may find that sessions with them are intense and rewarding.
Once your child is a little older, about two and a half, you can drop the mundane material and begin on books you choose from the library. There is so much lovely literature out there for young kids that we will share more details in a future post. Toddlers may enjoy lots of rhymed stories, plenty of concept books, classics, and nonfiction.
If you have more than one child, you may find that they are different in their preferences for reading material and how they respond to it. One child may be an earlier reader, but a second may learn to read at a slow pace in first grade. Yet starting them on books as infants can nudge them both toward being independent, avid readers. The skill and enjoyment of reading can help them perform well in school and on standardized tests. Also, early experience with books helps your child develop vocabulary, general knowledge, and even a flair for story-telling.
Seeing the pattern with infants and toddlers in your life, especially your own, you may already be sold on the special role of books in the development of young children. To encourage other expectant parents, you could choose a board book to go with each baby shower gift, usually something with bright pictures and textures for the baby to feel. Although not every child will respond in the same way, books can help the parent discover the child’s bent and nurture it–if it happens to be less linguistic and more truck and tools related, for example. Whatever the child’s penchant, poring over a book with your baby is priceless time together.