Picture this: You are holding your precious baby on your lap and opening a book to read aloud. You are building his love of reading, nurturing him with quality time, enriching his understanding of humanity. Two seconds later, that same child is escaping across the room – crying, no less – with a freshly-chewed board book in his grasp.
You and your baby are perfectly normal.
All of the experts agree that one of the most important things a parent can do is to read aloud to their child.
Most of us know this and we want this, but we silently face challenges on every side when we want to sit down with our baby and a book at the same time.
How in the world are we supposed to read to babies?!?
If reading aloud to your baby or toddler feels impossible, take heart: you’re not alone. All parents have to work with childhood’s limited attention span, unpredictable emotional needs, and ferocious appetites for book corners.
These challenges are part of reading aloud to children. So, if these things pop up in your home, you’re in good company.
All you need is a plan.
Reading aloud to babies requires a strategy.
Today, you and I are going to consider the obstacles and work out a plan so that we know when to, how to, and what to read.
I’ve learned how to read aloud to babies by asking my mom how she did it, and by trial-and-error over the past 12 years of reading to 5 different baby personalities in all kinds of circumstances. (Recently, I’ve received tons of inspiration, encouragement, and ideas from The Read-aloud Revival. I feel like I’ve found my people.)
I have some ideas that will help you to succeed in the ever-elusive ideal of reading aloud to your baby or toddler.
Are you ready?
The 3-Step Baby-friendly Read-aloud Plan:
(increase the odds that you will get through a page or two, un-chewed)
Discover your child’s read-aloud style.
Every child has a unique learning style already at work by the time you open Goodnight Moon for the first time.
Part of your calling is to discover what your child likes about books in the first place.
We all read for different reasons. I read for life lessons. One of our daughters reads for story. Another one of our daughters connects with the characters and likes to re-enact the story afterward. One of our sons likes using books as a reference point. (True story: when he was 2, he suggested to his Sunday School teacher that they reference a picture of a truck from a book whilst working on a little art project.)
Remember that children are simply adults-in-the-making. Some contemplative adults read one paragraph, copy it in their Commonplace Books, and meditate on it for a few days. Other socially-charged adults join book clubs, read half the book, but have lots to say at the meeting.
Have fun observing your child’s unique approach to books and daydreaming about how they might grow to enjoy them over time.
What does your child like about books?
- Watching the words
- Hearing the words
- Looking at pictures
- Interacting with the pictures
- Connecting with the characters
- Spending time with you
- Role-playing afterward
- Asking questions
- Personal contemplation
- Something else?
Try this: Keep your eye open for your child’s learning style and be ready to nourish your child accordingly.
For example, some children will be far more interested in the illustrations, others will need one word or idea to spur a discussion, others will need one idea to spur a play time, others will like to listen to the words while staring into space, others will listen while playing something else, etc.
Once you know what your child likes about books, you can emphasize that when you read aloud. You’ll capture your child’s attention, have more fun, and feel like THE BEST MOM IN THE WORLD when you see your little one in love with a book.
(acting out The Tale of Peter Rabbit)
2. Discover when and where you will read-aloud together.
When is your child most likely to connect with a read-aloud? Every child has a natural “body clock” of energy highs and lows, times of contemplation and times of output.
Most of my babies have been mellow immediately after nursing, so I often read 1 book then in the morning and after nap-time.
Also, where does your baby or toddler seem to settle down and seem most attentive? In the high chair or bouncy seat? Snuggling on the couch? Make the most of the best time-and-place.
When and where are you willing to read aloud?
Growing up, I always imagined that I’d snuggle with my young children before bed and read chapter upon chapter to them. Now that I’m a mother, this is not my reality.
Some people love to read at bedtime, but I don’t: my patience is as thin as paper by then, so I need to focus on getting those lights out. “Bedtime stories” don’t work for us because I want to spend those few precious evening hours with my husband, or with my own book, or writing to you. So, instead of reading aloud at bedtime, I sing a little song and we pray as a family.
It works best for me and my children to read at the table or in the playroom during the day, not snuggled up in bed at night.
Try this: For 3 days, simply observe when and where your child is quietest and most mellow. Then, plan to read 1 book during that time.
3. Design a Read-aloud Plan that suits you, your child, and your daily rhythm.
Don’t wait for perfection: The perfect time, temperature or book might never come your way – so, you’re just going to have to do your best and jump in today. Have a hunch that now’s a good time to read? Grab a book and give it a try!
Set yourself up for success: Keep a small basket of books in every location where you’ll be likely to find an opportunity to read to your baby: near the kitchen table, in the bathroom, next to the rocking chair, etc. Then, you’ll easily access a good book AND it’ll be easy to tidy up afterward.
Maybe some of these ideas will get your wheels turning as you create your Read-Aloud Plan:
Consider reading a poem or a Psalm when you nurse or bottle-feed your baby. Place the poem on your end-table so you don’t have to turn pages and read it aloud to your little one.
Lay down next to baby during tummy time, or prop baby up in your lap and read a simple book with well-defined pictures that you can point to and identify. Even if your baby isn’t looking at the pages, she is absorbing the language and the experience. You are establishing her expectations: you read aloud.
Our Five Favorites:
Big Red Barn
Usborne First Words Look and Say Book
I Know a Rhino
DK Touch and Feel Farm
Read nursery rhymes or a baby prayer book while your baby is eating.
The short poems allow for frequent interruptions, and yet you are introducing baby to rich language, ideas, illustrations, and the concept of reading from a book. You won’t feel as frustrated by the interruptions and your baby’s attention span will grow over time. (Added bonus: your baby is eating food and not the book.)
I think it’s often easier to read to an active baby when they are not sitting in my lap wrestling the book out of my hands. So, I like to read aloud when my baby’s in the Exersaucer or Jumpy Seat. I try to keep a few books in the base of the Exersaucer and in a basket near the jumpy seat, so they are accessible.
After you’ve taken some time to observe what type of reader/ learner God has given you, plan your read-aloud time accordingly.
Do you have an active kiddo? Read one board-book, then act it out.
Contemplative kiddo? Read a book, then let her play alone to think it through.
Talkative kiddo? Read a book, then talk about it all day long! Write down some of his thoughts and read them aloud as a story.
Some children like to hold a related toy while listening to the book. (i.e. My daughter loves to hold her “Corduroy” doll while reading the Corduroy books.)
Other children like to have their backs rubbed while they listen.
Our Five – okay, Seven – Favorites:
Judy Dunn’s “The Little ….” books like The Little Kitten
Robert McCloskey’s books like Blueberries for Sal
Clifford the Big Red Dog
Little Bear books (read one chapter at a time)
Frog and Toad books (also read one chapter at a time)
Shorter Beatrix Potter books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of the Two Bad Mice, and The Tale of Jamima Puddle Duck.
A Read-aloud Rule-of-Thumb
I’m no literary expert, but I propose that we feel good about reading aloud:
1 board book for a 1 year old,
2 board books for a 2 year old,
3 board books or short picture books for a 3 year old, and
4 picture books for a 4 year old.
That has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? It’s not a science, but it’s a reasonable goal for most kiddos.
And, of course, don’t forget how wonderful and meaningful it is to talk to your little one.
We can nurture our children’s literacy by talking to them about the stuff of life from day to day. (I wrote a whole post about that – including 10 Literary Themes for Babies and all! You’ll want to catch it here.)