Experts agree that reading to children can help with emotional and cognitive development. But equally important, it's a magical time that allows parents the chance to slow down from their busy day and enjoy quiet time with their little one. When parents take time to focus attention on their child, it is proven to provide long-lasting positive effects that support self-esteem and emotional and intellectual growth.
Eileen Santa-Sosa, Ph.D., a psychologist with Children's Health℠ who specializes in the development of infants and young children with medical conditions, offers the following tips to make the most of this special activity with your child.
1. It's never too early to start reading to your child
Begin reading to your child as you soon as you can – even during pregnancy – as children learn your voice and start to interact with the world. It's important to make reading a part of their life, as the benefits of reading last a lifetime.
"Up until age 5, the brain is in the fastest development of its lifetime," says Dr. Santa-Sosa. "Children absorb information and knowledge from our experiences and our language."
2. Reading doesn't have a firm stop date
Read with your child for as long as you can. A child's interests change over time, but the emotional and intellectual value of reading continues to grow. Early and continued reading also helps children understand the changing world and can inspire a lifelong love of reading.
"Young children learn how books work by observing and interacting. They learn how to turn the pages and how to read from left to right," Dr. Santa-Sosa adds. "Parents can describe pictures to younger children, and help them to relate the pictures to their daily experiences. Closer to preschool, point out pictures in books and ask your child what they think will happen next. Encourage your child to think about what the person or animal might be feeling and share that with you."
Continue to adapt with your child. Ask your child to read to you or to create a story using the images and characters in the book.
3. Incorporate books that have clearly labeled objects
A recent study found that infants retain information and pay attention better if the books clearly label people and objects. The study also found that labeled books encouraged greater parent and child engagement while reading.
Reading together builds vocabulary and the parent-child relationship, says Dr. Santa-Sosa. "Reading provides opportunities for children to learn about the world beyond their home and expand their vocabulary."
4. Be cautious with technology
A new study found that parent behavior may change when reading to their child from e-books, compared to print books. Additionally, it may impact the amount of conversation and shared book reading between parent and child. These preliminary findings suggest that it is important for parents to be extra cautious when they read electronic books. Parents can remind themselves to do their own reading to the child, and avoid distractions, such as buttons or features that read for them. Additionally, parents should be mindful to interact with their child, instead of the e-reader. Parents may have to make an extra effort to remind themselves to use the same strategies that they use with a print book, in order to engage the child in conversation and have a shared experience.
5. Connect what's on the page to your child's world
"Baby books may not have a lot of words, but they have colors and shapes," Dr. Santa-Sosa explains. "When parents describe these to the child, they can label familiar things, and make up stories." Connecting the story to the child's world brings the book to life.
Dr. Santa-Sosa says it's important for children of all ages to be able to connect the story to real life or to what is in your home. "For example, if a book has pictures of food, pull those items from your kitchen and have them available. Let your child look at and taste the food. This enhances your child's learning."
6. Your child will help you find the best book for him or her
Booksellers and libraries have sections devoted to age or stage-specific topics. But with so many titles to choose from, it can be difficult to decide what book works best for your child.
Dr. Santa-Sosa reminds parents that choosing developmentally appropriate books is important, as well as paying attention to what he or she enjoys. "Watch for verbal and non-verbal cues. Your child will let you know if he or she is engaged. Babies will smile and toddlers will ask questions. You can see how they feel about the book."
7. Your excitement about reading is equally important
Beyond teaching words, one of the largest benefits of reading aloud to a child is the deep bond you develop. It creates positive memories and builds your child's self-esteem.
"Make it fun. Be enthusiastic and show it in your voice and face. This captures a baby or toddler's attention and reinforces the love you have for your child. Undivided attention helps support the development of an emotional attachment."
Dr. Santa-Sosa says sometimes it's better to have the child sit facing you rather than in your lap, so he or she is able to clearly see your face.
8. Older siblings will also benefit from reading aloud
Involving older siblings in reading time can help them feel an emotional attachment to younger siblings (and vice versa), strengthening the family bond. Older siblings will also learn valuable social skills.
"This can be a learning opportunity for all children involved. They build social skills like sharing and interacting, and it's like having a sophisticated play mate," Dr. Santa-Sosa adds.
Dr. Santa-Sosa recommends parents take turns reading with older siblings or have them answer questions as you read aloud. Mix it up and make it a family activity – a baby book one time and toddler book later in the day – to keep both children interested and involved. Use a combination of time together with siblings, and times that are special to just a single child.
Tips on how to make reading a routine
Creating a routine doesn't have to be complicated. It should easily fit into your lifestyle and become part of your daily life. Dr. Santa-Sosa provides tips for creating a routine that's simple to keep:
- Plan around your schedule. Think about your daily life and where you typically have a longer, quiet break. It doesn't have to be just at bedtime; it should be whenever you can focus on just your child.
- Be forgiving. Life happens. There will be days you're unable to find a quiet moment, finish a book or you may just forget. It's okay; just get back to it the next day.
- Reading time doesn't always go as planned. It's okay if your toddler runs off in the middle of a book. Put it down and finish it later.
- Create book bags on the go. Pack extra books in a bag or car so you can take advantage of unexpected downtime. Read while you wait for an appointment or stand in a long line.
- Involve your family or other caregivers. Establish plans with daycare, partners, grandparents, uncles or best friends. They, too, can help make reading fun and engaging.
- Ask for suggestions, but focus on what's best for your child. Speak with your pediatrician, family and friends about what routines have worked for them. But remember, every family is different, so focus on the suggestions that are helpful and realistic.
- Keep going. No one ever stops learning, so prepare your child early and help create a life-long passion for reading.
Stay current on the health and wellness information that makes a difference to you and your family. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more expert tips and insights sent directly to your inbox.