Parents are reminded ad nauseum to read to their children from day one. I swear, while mom and dad fearfully prepare to take their newborn home for the first time, a nurse slips you a pamphlet on the importance of reading to your child. You don’t know the basics of feeding and changing your child yet and they’re already making you feel guilty for not reading to them enough. You are reminded of this all over the media and at every pediatric appointment. Often there aren’t any strategies laid out for how to encourage a love of books, particularly with babies.
Some of our natural inclinations for reading to children can actually lead to bored, squirmy babies who no longer want to be a part of storytime. Some caregivers believe they need to read every word in a book because of a misleading notion that language develops best if we speak with complexity to babies. Others don’t want their baby to move or interrupt during the story. Thankfully, most remember to show the baby the pictures of the book and don’t attempt Charlotte’s Web with a six month old! I’ve heard “my baby doesn’t like books” from many of my friends and acquaintances and I think it’s often because their storytime approach is better suited to older children.
I approach storytime with little babies by completely following their lead. A baby just a few months old will give you clues as to what interests them with their eyes. So, I rarely read the printed word. If they are staring at a pictured light, I talk about it. This is often as simple as saying, “Oooh, light. That’s a nice light.” while emphasizing the word light, and letting them look as long as they maintain interest. Parentese is ubiquitous across cultures; it serves the purpose of allowing babies to learn the sounds of their native language better. Just as we adapt our speech when talking to babies, we need to do it with our language while reading with them.
There are very few books with language simple enough to please a baby, so I adapt most to meet them at their level. A few that I rarely change are Goodnight Moon or Pat the Bunny. We will sit with individual pages as long as the baby desires. We might talk about the kittens for five minutes, meowing and pretending to pet them.
I might adapt a book like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by imitating the animals after each question: “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? Roar roar roar roar roar, roar roar roar roar.” (Count the roars there. I know the book by heart.) Eventually I’ll adapt back to the written word, but this quickly draws the babies in and helps them associate the sound with the animal they’re looking at.
My youngest, as a one year old, would turn pages through several books as quickly as possible until we hit his favorite page. The exciting part for him was just interacting with the book, so I would read quickly or simplify the words depending on the type of book and we’d go back and forth between that page and the next over and over again to his heart’s content. The sweet spot in Goodnight, Gorilla is when the zookeeper’s wife turns on the light and finds the gorilla lying there in bed. He still loves this page because my husband and I always make a shocked, silly gasp and dramatically exclaim something like, “Oh! Gorilla!!! What are you doing in my bed?”
It is important to remember that the goal is enjoy yourselves while exploring books, not to finish the book or read every sentence. Time with books should provide a dedicated time together seeing new things, labeling new words, talking simply about what’s interesting. It can be a launching pad for a longer conversation about a single picture or topic, returning to finish the book another day. If a child is tired of a book, just close it and move on to a different one, even if you’re on page one. If they need to run around the room and just check in every once in awhile while you read, let them. Be silly, make the book interactive, keep your language simple, and vary your pitch a lot. Most babies will not be interested in every word of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but they will love touching the holes in the book and probably delight in hearing silly eating noises while you try to nibble their fingers or toes.
If you’ve been having challenges reading to a baby or toddler, give these strategies a shot. A baby with a strong built-in aversion to books will need some serious playtime with the first few books, maybe even the first few hundred books. Make sure that baby knows you are going to have FUN and storytime has changed. Make crazy animal noises while looking at pictures, get a puppet, stuffed animal, doll, or other favorite toy to read, or whatever other silly idea you have to make it clear the routine is different now.
For example, as a toddler, our oldest wanted his stuffed robot to read his books every time for at least a year. We made up a monotone robot voice and read every book that way. When he wanted to talk about the book or ask questions he would say, “No, robot talk,” if we used our voice. We would have to answer him in the robot voice and have the robot point to things. He and the robot had many stimulating conversations, let me tell you.
After a few experiences with the new and improved storytime, I imagine your child will be bringing books to your side to request a reading. Give it a try, follow their lead, and see how much more pleasant it is. I hope you will find this makes reading more pleasurable for both the adult and child.