Reading is an addiction that parents should encourage well before their baby's first birthday. The bonding experience is unbeatable, says Patricia Cowan, national program coordinator for Reach Out and Read, a project that gives children books during medical checkups. When you read to children, they're getting your full attention, and that's what they just love. Nothing -- no TV show or toy -- is better than that.
Reading to babies is also a great way to immerse them in the sounds and rhythms of speech, which is crucial for language development. In a study at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island, 18- to 25-month-olds whose parents said they had been reading to them regularly for a year could say and understand more words than those whose parents hadn't. It's hard to prove whether such advantages last, but plenty of parents are convinced that early exposure to books makes a long-term difference, both boosting children's language abilities and making them more eager to learn how to read.
Birth to 6 months: Since an infant's vision is still developing, choose books with little or no text and big, high-contrast pictures. Also consider books with interactive stuff, such as puppets, mirrors, or peepholes, recommends Pamela High, MD, author of the Brown University reading study and a professor of pediatrics there. The more ways you both have to enjoy a book, the better. If you'd like, read to your baby from grown-up books or magazines too. Comprehending the words isn't really the point with babies this young. For infants, reading is about the tone of your voice and cuddling up to you.
7 to 12 months: Halfway through their first year, babies may begin to grasp some of the words read to them, says Cosby Rogers, PhD, a professor of human development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The most meaningful words are the names and things from their everyday life -- words like "doggy," "mommy," "daddy," "milk," or "bottle."
Books with just one object or person per age are best; hearing you name something he recognizes reinforces your baby's vocabulary and slowly helps him realize that illustrations stand for real things. Point to the pictures he shows interest in. And act out what you read with your face, hands, and voice. Let the baby babble back to you in return, suggests Dr. Rogers. This "conversation" helps him learn to take turns and teaches him about focusing on the same thing as someone else.
One more tip: Because babies this age tend to be hard on their playthings, stick mostly to board books, which can take rough handling and even chewing. Cloth or vinyl books are good too, though turning the pages can be trickier for a baby.
13 to 18 months: Now you can begin to introduce books with a sentence or two per page. The sillier you are while acting out the story, the better. For instance, if you're reading about animals, make animal noises. Your baby will think it's really funny, Cowan says. Sooner or later, he will "moo" or "baa" back to you and you'll be ready to fall off the couch laughing.
Invite participation by asking questions such as "What does the dog say?" or "Do you see the cat?" Ask your baby to point to real-life examples of what's pictured, ("Where's your nose?"). At this age, you can show more pictures of things your baby doesn't encounter every day. Also, at 15 to 18 months, your baby may be able to answer questions with a word, so give her the opportunities by asking, "What's that?" If she answers, you can boost her vocabulary by expanding on her thought:" Yes, car. That's a big green car."
19 to 24 months: Many toddlers find the familiar routine of reading reassuring and calming. The same goes for familiar books. This helps explain why, starting at about 18 months, children may ask for the same book over and over and over -- and why they won't let you change your reading performance by a single "meow" or "vroom." However, this dogged repetition has a learning benefit as well: Experts think it helps children make sense of and then remember new words.
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