Though it can feel slightly foolish at first, reading aloud to your baby is beneficial in several important ways. She is listening and learning, even when her responses are limited to cooing, drooling, and babbling.
Reading to infants requires that you give them your full attention; you can't be walking around or engaging in other tasks at the same time. It also encourages you to hold your baby where he or she can see your face: in your arms or on your lap, tummy up. This position offers lots of opportunity for eye contact, says Claire B. Kopp, author of "Baby Steps: The 'Whys' of Your Child's Behavior in the First Two Years." As she explains, when face to face, "babies can see the different expressions on their parents' faces, while parents can observe infants' reactions to sounds and visual stimuli as well as their need to move or to sit quietly, and their attention span."
Hearing stories lays the groundwork for language development. "Infants pick up the sound of language, its rhymes, rhythms, and intonation patterns," says Cathleen S. Soundy, an associate professor of early-childhood education at Temple University in Philadelphia. "We know that very young children are sound sensitive, in part because the onset of language has been seen to occur earlier in youngsters who have been read to."
Reading fosters a baby's ability to pay attention -- to temporarily stop exploring the world in order to settle down and attend to something of interest.
Early reading can also subtly reinforce children's social skills, Soundy says, because "being exposed to a wide range of books gives them access to a wide range of emotions, as well as the language to express how they feel."
Age Guidelines for Reading
Wading through the wealth of behavioral science about reading to infants can be daunting for new parents. To help you decide what to read to your child during his or her first year, parent educators and researchers offer the following guidelines.
Newborn Through 5 Months
When it comes to reading aloud, the early months are the toughest because it is hard to judge responsiveness: Young babies are essentially passive listeners. At this stage, focus on the experience of spending time engaging in a directed activity with your child. In the first two months, a baby can absorb facial expressions, sounds, and smells, and learn to distinguish between parents and caregivers. At 2 months, there can also be "vocal volley": The parent makes a sound, and the baby responds with a sound. At this stage it may not matter what you read. Just keep the reading short and your voice animated. If your baby looks away or fusses, stop.
6 to 8 Months
Around 6 months, babies begin to look to the outside world, and they start to understand that the people around them have feelings and states of mind. Now you can both look at something, look at each other, and share a laugh. Six-month-olds also learn to distinguish greater degrees of detail, says Kopp, including linguistic detail: They "truly hear intonation in the speech of their culture, and their babbling reflects it." Choose books with few words and plenty of bold, bright pictures that help describe a baby's world -- the roundness of an apple or the yellow of a daffodil.
8 Months to 1 Year
This age signals the great leap forward in cognitive and motor skills. Infants experience major growth in recall memory -- the ability to recall something without cues; for example, they can remember what Mommy looks like when she isn't there. They begin to associate some sounds with objects, and their utterances reflect the rise-and-fall intonation of adult sentences. Babies nearing 1 year old are moving around all the time -- crawling, even walking in some cases. "Sitting down and reading aloud can supply some much-needed brakes," Kopp says.
1 Year and Up
Having developed fairly good motor skills, year-old babies eagerly explore their environment, picking up objects, tasting them, and turning them over -- which is why they may not want to sit still for a story but also why, given their ever-increasing powers of concentration, perhaps they should. The ability to concentrate is fundamental to learning, and it can start with reading aloud. Choose picture books depicting categories of things or storybooks, like Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon," with some narrative. Other good choices are stories that are descriptive and convey emotions, like Watty Piper's "The Little Engine That Could."
Find or create a comfortable space in which to read.
Carve out a moment -- it won't necessarily be the same time each day -- when your child seems receptive to reading. Read only for a few minutes at a time: up to five minutes during the first six months, and up to 15 minutes or so during the latter part of the first year.
Babies are not alike -- each comes with an individual way of reacting to the world, and it's up to parents to discover it. Some babies like lots of stimulation; others do not. Some babies like being held; others revel in movement. Some find a gentle voice charming; others prefer one that is animated.
Stay attuned to what your child is doing. "Look for cues, and act accordingly," Soundy advises. "Stop reading when your baby loses interest. If your baby has been engaged in quiet activities, now may be the time not for reading but for active play."
When building a library, go for familiarity: a small selection of books that delight your child and that you will read over and over.
Books should be no smaller than 4 by 6 inches. The pages should be made of board or other chewable material, so baby can mouth them with impunity.
To keep your baby in contact with his library, construct a simple book stand out of a shoebox by removing the top and cutting away one long side. Keep the shelf on the floor, so the books can be reached by a baby on the move.
Don't feel guilty if you don't enjoy reading aloud -- not all parents do. Use a book as a springboard: Sing a song, or talk about what's on the page.