As a freshman in high school, I took theater class expecting to learn how to act. But one of our units—that we were graded on—was reading children’s books. One by one, we each went up and perched on a stool at the front of the classroom while the rest of us were made to sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor.
I have vivid memories of being judged on my ability to hold the book facing the “children” and having to stop reading to ask pointless questions about what they saw on the page.
Children’s book reading wasn’t nearly as glamorous as pantomiming the construction of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, especially for 14 year old me who dreamed of getting “discovered” and whisked off to become an actress.
But looking back, it was probably one of the best skills someone in school ever attempted to teach me to prepare me for adulthood.
It’s too bad I didn’t know the value of it then!
Reading with baby is a skill, and an important one, because early literacy is a huge factor in children’s academic success. Children who are read with often from a young age are more likely to do well in school and far less likely to drop out.
If nothing else, reading will become somewhat of a chore for you as your child ages and wants to read the same books over and over again.
Since reading will become a big staple of your young child’s developmental diet, you might as well grow a taste for it and try to beef up your skills.
We’ll discuss 10 refreshing tips for transforming reading into a rich, robust, and rewarding experience for both child and parent. All of these tips are geared toward keeping your baby or young toddler interested for a long as possible. They also create opportunities for learning and going deeper.
Tip #1: Read slowly, clearly, and animatedly
Reading with baby requires intentionality. Give that little brain time to process what you’re saying and make connections to what it’s seeing by reading in a slow, controlled way.
Plus, no one likes listening to a dull reading, and very young children have small attention spans. Whenever you read, challenge yourself to find creative new ways to really bring the book to life.
Many books lay the ground work for the reader by emphasizing specific pieces of content on the pages. Speech bubbles above certain characters, questions and answers, and onomatopoeia can all guide your reading, especially when a book is mainly pictures with very little text.
Tip #2: Point at things on the pages
Babies and very young toddlers don’t instantly make connections with the words you’re saying and what they see on the page, because they have so little experience to build on.
When you read, “In the shade of a willow, a little fawn naps. And under a lily, there’s…a turtle that snaps!” your brain quickly locates everything mentioned. But when your baby hears this verse, it’s just a string of sounds that you’re making while she happens to be looking at a book. She hasn’t yet been trained to hear these sentences and connect them to what she sees.
You can assign meaning to images, words, and concepts by pointing and gesturing at the pictures as you read slowly, giving her time to follow along. “In the shade of a willow”—trace your finger along the willow leaves—“a little fawn”—tap your finger on the sleeping deer—“under a lily there’s…”—point at the lily pad; get ready to lift the flap quickly and excitedly—“a turtle that snaps!!”—point emphatically at the turtle. (Excerpt taken from Little Green Frog by Ginger Swift).
Another variation for pointing is to count and practice basic numbers. Count the butterflies on the page, pointing at each one and pausing for a moment after you say the number to let it register with your child. Try not to go beyond 10 or so, as there’s only so many numbers they can handle when they’re very young.
You’ll be amazed at how much longer you can read with baby before she gets bored when you point at things on the pages. Their curious minds crave making connection, and when you take a meaningless canvas of color and associate it with language, you’re making it come alive—something your little one will happily pay attention to for an extra couple of minutes.
Tip #3: Look for interactive board books
Interactive books give babies something to do while reading. Lift-a-flap books, touch and feel books, and others bring your little reader into the experience in ways that they can master relatively quickly.
It’ll be a long time before she can read the book aloud, but she can contribute when she runs her finger over a patch of fuzzy fur or peeks under a flap. This gives her a sense of autonomy and something to bring to the table, and it’ll give her more reason to stick around with the activity.
Tip #4: Let baby turn the pages
Similarly, your child can help hold his own by turning board book pages. You might be surprised just how early your infant can start accomplishing this feat!
As you go along, ask him if he wants to turn the page and give him plenty of chances. Over time, as he watches you do this task, he’ll want to take over.
Help him by immediately and subtly lifting the next page as soon as you turn to a new one. That way, when he tries to turn the page, he doesn’t close the whole book.
Tip #5: Practice baby-led reading
You meet her other needs as they arise, not just when it’s “time” to do so. Don’t get so focused on reading a book the “right” way that you miss other opportunities. Remember, the goal is reading with baby, not just to baby!
Follow your child’s lead with a book, and sometimes you’ll get a glimpse of what she’s trying to learn, not just what you’re attempting to teach her. Sure, it’s important to show her about reading a book from cover to cover, but young children can glean much more from a book than just the story. Give your baby a chance to explore the book with you.
This means not always reading the whole thing. It means slowing down and taking the time to name everything she points at. It means turning the page and being patient when she wants to go back to the one you just spent several minutes on.
Tip #6: Embrace the favorites
It also means that—for better or worse—you can’t choose her favorites. You might tear up trying to read the mushy book, only for your child to indicate she actually wants to read about what the brown bear sees for the billionth time.
It’s good to explore a wide range of books, but the reality is that your little one will go through phases of only wanting to engage with the same 4.67 books for days on end.
Be patient and spend time with her reading what she’s into at the moment, because she might be working hard at memorizing the shape of a horse, or trying to master sliding a panel back and forth, or maybe she just really enjoys finding Spot right now.
If you really start to go insane with what’s behind the green balloon, or if the jingle from the book with a music button in the upper righthand corner is keeping you up at night…just hide the book for a few days and move on to the next one.
Related reading: Reframing Mom Guilt | It’s Okay to “Fail”
Tip #7: Study the book together beyond what the text offers you
Reading with baby can be a great way to pass the time on long days, but most books for very little kids can be read in a minute or two, barely scratching the surface of what the book has to offer. So really dive in and study the book beyond the words the author has written.
It keeps the book fresh, and you’re teaching your baby all kinds of things about the world around her and about language, symbolism, cause and effect, emotion, and more. You’re laying a very early foundation for critical thinking and analysis, and giving voice to the careful work of noticing that your baby is already doing.
Narrate the story beyond what the author has done. Point out new things in rich language filled with nouns and adjectives. Describe the color and texture of an animal or object. Tell your child more about what that object is used for, or what a character is doing on the page. Begin to associate animals with their sounds and calls. Point out various emotions characters are exhibiting. Ask questions and give answers.
Your best work will occur when you’re desperate for something new to discuss about the book you’re sick and tired of reading. Pushing yourself to see a tired story in a new light and sharing it with your child will be ever so rewarding in so many ways.
Tip #8: Ask baby to find things
Reading with baby can be so much more than reading alone; it can be a game! When your child learns to point, he’ll probably start pointing at things in books that grab his attention, ones he recognizes or is fascinated by. Encourage him by naming everything he points at! After a while of going over the same nouns, you can start asking your child to find them.
“Where is the elephant?” you might say. Give him a few seconds to look for it, and ask again if you need to. Cheer for him and lavish him with praise when he gets it right; it’ll reinforce real-world nouns and concepts.
If he points at the lion, don’t just say, “No,” but rather, “That’s the lion! Where is the elephant?” in a positive tone. It’ll be a more powerful learning moment to know that what he’s pointing at isn’t the elephant because it’s something else.
Tip #9: Work reading into routines and keep books accessible for free play
Make reading with baby a regular part of life by incorporating it into routines. Read a couple of books before nap and bedtime. Keep one or two in your diaper bag to pull out on the go when you need to keep him occupied.
Build interactive reading into the structure of your daily life, but also keep books accessible for your baby to get into on his own during independent play.
Be sure to keep more sturdy books within his reach and store up high those he can easily damage, like ones with paper flaps or even paper pages. And keep an eye out for any books he starts munching on the corners of, because these can disintegrate and turn into a nice cardboard snack!
Tip #10: Bring stories to life with real-life interactions and the power of technology
Have a book about zoo animals? Take your child to the zoo if you can! Bring the book and for each animal inside, show baby the real life version and point back and forth between them, saying the name of the animal multiple times, reinforcing its sound or call and asking baby to say the name and the sound.
Have a book about riding a train? Book tickets for Amtrak or an old-school train and bring it to life, pointing out all the things the book covers.
Can’t experience something in real life for some reason? Consider using a phone or computer to access footage of what you’re reading about. Hop on YouTube and watch a few clips of elephants trumpeting, or trains rumbling along railroad tracks.
You set the tone for reading—make it a good one!
Reading with baby can be an incredibly special activity. It grows deeper and more dynamic as your baby grows up and acquires more knowledge and abilities. The interactions you have with books will not only bring enjoyment to you both now, but will lay a foundation for the rest of your child’s life. Invest in making reading a rich and beautiful experience, and watch as the smiles, lightbulb moments, and wonderful memories multiply!
Want a few books to get started with? Here’s a linked list of all the ones I referenced above.
- Little Green Frog by Ginger Swift
- Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill
- Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman
- Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
- Baby Colors! by Dawn Sirett Note: this was a baby shower gift a long while ago now and I can’t seem to find an obvious link to this book. The link provided here is the right cover and most of the reviews seem to indicate it’s the book we have, but the preview photos on Amazon are not the same. The one we have has photos of single objects with flaps to lift and see something of the same color behind it. For example: “What’s behind the green balloon? A green dinosaur! He loves to roar!” Copyright 2010, published by DK Publishing
- Somebunny Loves You! by Melinda Rumbaugh
- Colors With A Ladybug by Dawn Sirett
- Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann
- Train! by Judi Abbot
- Orangutan Is Scared by Sophie Holmqvist (my toddler loves finding the chameleon on every page of this book!)