Why Reading to Your Baby Is Important

Mom reading to newborn and older kids

Tatyana Tomsickova / iStockphoto

Even though your newborn cannot hold a book or doesn't know the letters of the alphabet, it's never too early to introduce them to the wonder of books. In fact, reading to your baby provides the building blocks they need for language development as well as equips them with the tools they require to develop social and emotional skills.

What's more, a 2019 study found that babies who are read to every day are exposed to around 78,000 words each year. That means kids who are read to, from birth to 5 years of age, are being exposed to 1.4 million words during storytime. That exposure has a direct impact on their future language skills and is one of the easiest ways for parents to set their kids up for academic success.

Here is what you need to know about reading to your baby, including why it's important and how to get started.

Why Reading to Your Baby Is Important

Reading books helps your baby's development in a number of ways. Not only does your baby get familiar with different sounds and words, but you're also creating a love for books and a passion for reading. Plus, reading books stimulates your baby's imagination and helps them learn about the world around them.

"Not only does reading help infants learn their native language and develop their speech with the more words they hear but they also benefit from an emotional connection with the person reading to them and holding them," says Danielle Roberts, MD, a pediatrician with Muskingum Valley Health Center in Ohio.

Even though your baby may not be talking yet, that doesn't mean they're not learning. In fact, from birth, babies embark on the immense journey of learning to speak, says Heather Turner, M.Ed., a reading tutor and former high school English teacher with a reading science certification.

"In their first year of life, their brains are growing more than at any other time in their life," Turner says. "When babies are read to, they are learning the sounds of language, the meanings associated with words, and the wonderful social element of communication."

Turner continues: "Reading books to babies and children also introduces uncommon vocabulary and sentence structure, as well as elements like rhyming and repetition, which are important prerequisites for readers. As every parent knows, routines are important, and establishing the value and habit of reading from the start is one of the best ways parents can set their child up for success, not just in academics but in social and mental health as well."

Meanwhile, not reading to your baby could have consequences. In fact, babies that haven’t been read to are likely hearing fewer words and may develop their speech or language skills at a slower pace, Dr. Roberts says. 

"Poor literacy skills in childhood have also been associated with more behavioral problems," she says.

In fact, research shows that kids who are read to and talked to know more words by age 2 than their peers who did not have the same experiences. They also are more likely to learn to read on time than kids who have not been read to.

Benefits of Reading to Babies

Even though your baby won't understand everything you're saying, their brain benefits from reading in a number of ways. Here are some benefits to reading:

  • Provides your baby with information about the world around them
  • Teaches them the importance of communication
  • Builds their listening, memory, and vocabulary skills
  • Introduces them to things like numbers, letters, colors, and shapes

When to Start Reading to Your Baby

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages reading to your baby as soon as they are born so they can learn and recognize your voice, Dr. Roberts says.

"While newborns will not understand what parents are reading they can recognize the tones and rhythms. Plus your voice is soothing for them," she says.

So, as soon as you can fit reading into your schedule, you should try to do it. But if you didn't start reading from birth, try to not worry. According to both Dr. Roberts and Turner, it's never too late to start reading to your baby. As long as you start reading as soon as you can, your baby will benefit.

"[To get the most benefit] you should try to read aloud to your baby daily to establish the habit of reading," Turner says. "Major milestones for oral language and vocabulary happen between birth and 3 years. Reading aloud in the child’s first years builds their vocabulary, their knowledge about the world, and the sounds and patterns of written language—all of which lay a solid foundation for literacy."

If you have multiple children, reading also is a great way to involve everyone at the same time. While your baby is young, allow your older children to choose, which books to read. Reading allows everyone to cuddle together and bond with the new baby.

How Often to Read to Your Baby

If you're a parent of a newborn, the thought of reading to your baby can feel overwhelming, especially if you're feeding your baby around the clock and are sleep-deprived. But, look at reading as an opportunity for you to sit down and cuddle with your baby—a chance to rest and relax—not one more thing to add to your to-do list.

"Short sessions [about 5-10 minutes] are fine as long as your baby is interested," Turner says. "Reading aloud is like depositing money into your child’s word bank account.  The earlier you start and the more you deposit, the richer your child will be when they enter school."

Turner suggests setting aside time each day such as bedtime, after their bath, or another calm time to read. Set reading times can help you remember to read and help build a routine for your baby.

"Parents have a lot on their plate, so it also helps to have some favorite books in easy-to-reach places where you are likely to read in a comfortable spot," Turner says. 

Reading Tips

Here are some general tips to help you make the most of your reading time.

  • Cuddle with your baby while you're reading—it helps them feel safe and connected to you.
  • Use an expressive voice when appropriate or use a different voice for different characters.
  • Stop and make comments about the pictures or texts and point out things to your baby.
  • Set up a special reading spot—like a big, comfy chair—with books nearby.
  • Turn off the television and silence your phone during reading time.
  • Let your baby's interests guide you. It won't be hard to identify which books are your baby's favorites, so don't be afraid to read them over and over.
  • Encourage your baby to touch the book, hold the book, and turn the pages as they get older.

Best Books for Babies

When selecting books for your baby, look for content that is simple, repetitive, and has colorful pictures. Even photo albums of family members are a fun "book" to go through with your baby.

You also can opt for books you will enjoy reading like favorites from your own childhood or books that have special meaning to you. And, make use of your local library when you can. This will allow you to consistently offer variety in what you are reading to your baby and it's free.

"Traditionally, most babies seem to enjoy looking at books that are black and white, or books that have a lot of pictures and less narrative content," Dr. Roberts says. "They also like books that have different textures or crinkly fabrics that they can feel. This way they can enjoy their book using as many senses as possible."

Turner says she enjoyed reading classics like "Goodnight, Moon" and "The Runaway Bunny," to her two boys.

"Another favorite author was Sandra Boynton whose books and songs invite expressive reading and wordplay," she says. "My 18-month-old's favorite was 'Bear Snores On,' and other books by Karma Wilson. I also highly recommend Jim Trelease’s website or book 'The Read-Aloud Handbook' as a resource for book recommendations." 

Try not to stress over what you're reading to your baby either. There are no perfect books. The key is that you are consistently reading to your little one. You could even read the newspaper out loud to your newborn if you wanted.

"When babies start to reach for books, opt for sturdy board or cloth books," she suggests. "Children who grow up in homes with lots of books are more likely to become good readers later.  Also, choose books you enjoy and take advantage of library resources and storytimes as they grow."

Whatever you choose to read, the important thing is that they are hearing your voice as well as a variety of words. As they get older, can hold their head up, and can reach for the book, you may want to make sure you have age-appropriate books for them, though.

A Word From Verywell

Reading should be a relaxing and enjoyable time for both you and your baby. As a result, pick books both you and your baby will enjoy and establish a regular reading spot in your home.

As your baby grows, they will look forward to reading time and may even bring books to you to read. Cherish these quiet moments with your little one. Before you know it, they will be reading to you.

 

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2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Logan JAR, Justice LM, Yumuş M, Chaparro-Moreno LJ. When children are not read to at home: The million word gap. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2019 Jun;40(5):383-386. doi:10.1097/DBP.0000000000000657. PMID:30908424.

  2. Kids Health. What are the benefits of reading to my baby? Updated August 2019.

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