Reading to Babies & Toddlers

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When should you start reading to your baby?  NOW!  There are many, well documented benefits associated with reading to your child.  Therefore, the sooner you start, the greater will be the benefit to your child.  You may question why you would read books to babies who can’t even support themselves, never lone hold, focus on, or comprehend a book.  However, we speak to babies before they understand or can engage in the conversation.  We offer and help babies hold and shake objects and rattles before they can do this by themselves or understand the purpose for such actions.  We do these activities to help develop these skills.

Similarly, it’s never too early to start reading to your baby.  Although the benefits increase with the baby’s age, starting early means you have instilled the ‘habit and joy’ of reading so as your child develops he/she can reap these benefits.


Reading aloud:

  • Promotes bonding between parent and child
  • Increases vocabulary
  • Engenders a love of books, reading and learning
  • Increases general knowledge
  • Develops cognition, including problem solving skills
  • Stimulates the imagination
  • Promotes listening skills
  • Develops attention span and concentration
  • Develops pre-reading skills

Spending time reading to your baby or toddler strengthens the bonds between parents and the child (Peifer & Perez, 2011; Holland, 2008).  Book reading time is typically spent cuddled in the parent’s arms and receiving their undivided attention.  This contributes to the child feeling safe, happy, relaxed and emotionally connected.  As an additional benefit, high quality social-emotional interactions are linked to children’s motivation to read in later years (Serpell, Baker, & Sonnenschein, 2005).

Over the past 20 years, numerous studies have shown that reading to children from a young age enhances early language development, vocabulary, comprehension and cognition, and that these positive effects continue to be observable in the early years of school (e.g., Peifer & Perez, 2011; Raikes et al., 2009; Pan, Rowe, Singer & Snow, 2005; Sne’chal & LeFevre, 2002).  The researchers attributed these benefits to a number of factors.  Firstly, reading books results in higher levels of parent-child verbal interaction compared to any other type of interaction.  This focused language exchange allows parents to support and develop the child’s language, thinking and understanding.  Secondly, reading books to children exposes them to more sophisticated words, concepts and general knowledge than would be encountered in general day-to-day conversations and experiences.

Children who have been read to frequently also have improved listening skills, which are integral to success at school (Roberts, Jurgens & Burchinal, 2005).  Listening to stories requires a level of attention and concentration.  Thus logically, the more often that children listen to stories the better these skills become.

An important pre-reading skill is understanding the conventions of print.  In English, this includes knowing that we read from left to right, and from front to back, and that letters and words convey a message. Many of these conventions are absorbed by children simply by reading books to them.

Children who have been read to regularly from an early age are more likely to develop a love of reading.  Reading regularly to your child also sends a message that reading and learning are valuable skills.  Most children do not learn to read simply by being read to (Sne’chal & McFevre, 2002).  However, once children learn the skill of reading, the more practice they have, the better they become at reading.


Establish a reading ritual.  Make reading to your child a part of his/her going-to-sleep routine.  Not only does it signal that sleep-time is eminent, but it provides a transition between activity and relaxation, and because the child is relaxed he/she is more likely to sit and listen.  This also helps establish a life-time habit of reading.

Read stories throughout the day, both inside and outside, as a break from more active pursuits.  Keep the sessions short (unless your child requests more).  Get into the habit of taking a children’s book along with you.  Reading the book will help fill in the time and give restless children a focus, especially when waiting for appointments.  For older children, it is important that you make time to read.  This can often be facilitated by limiting television and computer use and making sure they are switched off during designated book reading times.

Sit your child in your lap and place the book where you both can see it easily.  This sets up a link between feeling safe and comfortable, and the enjoyment of reading books.

Read with flair.  Use different emotions (happy, sad), expressive sounds, and different voices for different characters (high pitched, squeaky, quite, loud).  The use of intonation, gestures and facial expressions provide clues as to word meaning, aid in the comprehension of the story and keep the child interested and focused on the book.

Be prepared to read the same book again, and again.  Babies and young children love and learn from repetition.  You may be bored, but they won’t be!

Reading to your child should be an interactive process.

  • Ask questions, especially open-ended questions that require your child to think about the story and what might happen next
  • Provide feedback
  • Allow time for your child to respond. For babies this may just mean babbling or moving their hands and feet.  You can then talk about the baby’s response (“You like that little kitten – meow!”).  This helps teach your child the process of communication.
  • Encourage your child to make the sounds of the animals, point to objects on a page, and repeat words. Toddlers can say the repetitive phrases or sentences in books which use this type of pattern.
  • Vocabulary development is enhanced when you digress from the story to provide additional information, examples or clarification.
  • Talk about the illustrations, comment on objects that your child points to and answer their questions.
  • Discuss the emotions that a story may evoke (sadness, happiness, jealousy) as this helps in the socialisation process.
  • Link events that happen in the story to events in the child’s own life and interests. You may even substitute your child’s name for a character in the book.
  • Talk about the features of a book – the back and the front of the book, the words, the title, the author, which page to turn next. Once your child is able, encourage him/her to help turn the pages.
  • Nursery Rhymes and rhyming books, like the Dr Seuss books, promote an awareness of rhyme, a component of phonological awareness which is an important pre-reading skill. Once your child is talking, leave off the last word of the rhyme for him/her to finish.
  • Alphabet books in which the objects represented begin with the sound of the letters of the alphabet (e.g., a-apple but NOT aunty or apron) are also useful for developing phonological awareness. By stressing the initial sounds in these words you are introducing your child to, and developing an awareness of, initial phonemes (sounds) and shared phonemes across words.
  • Once stories that have been read repeatedly are well known, you can change key concepts in the story. For example, you can change the gender of the key characters (Cinderella becomes Cinderfellow and Prince Charming becomes Princess Charming) OR you can say the opposite (the step-sisters loved Cinderella and were always helping her) OR you can mix up the order in which the events occurred.

As a general rule, try to read a book from beginning to end.  This emphasises the concept of reading direction and reading for meaning.  However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you always need to read everything that is on the page.  If you are in a hurry, or the child is become restless, you may only read the key sentence or just make a quick comment about the page (e.g., “And there’s the dog sleeping in his box”).

Don’t force your child to sit and listen to you read, but be sure to try again later.  Use a book marker and say, “We can finish reading this later”.  Make sure you return to the book that day and finish the book from the marked place.  Get teddy or a favourite toy to come and listen to the story, or use puppets to tell the story. You may find that your child sits still better while colouring or playing with a favourite toy while you read.  Don’t assume that because your child isn’t looking at you or the book that he or she isn’t interested or listening.

Allow your child to select the books to be read.  Similarly, make sure you have a range of children’s books on a shelf that your child can easily reach and be prepared to read the books your child brings to you.  This sets the foundation for later independent reading.

Join a library and borrow regularly.  Attend library story-telling sessions.  Most importantly, don’t give up just because your child does not initially appear interested.  We don’t immediately expect children to be able to talk or walk; rather we patiently help them practice these skills.  It is the same with books.

Above all, make it fun.  Your goal should be to show your child that reading is enjoyable.


Berk, L. (1997).  Child development (4th ed.).Needham Heights, Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.

Holland, J., (2008).  Reading aloud with infants:  The controversy, the myth and a case study. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35, 383-385.

Kindle, K. (2010). Vocabulary development during read-alouds: Examining the instructional sequence.  Literacy Teaching and Learning, 14(1&2), 650-688.

Peifer, K., & Perez, L. (2011). Effectiveness of a coordinated community effort to promote early literacy behaviors. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 15(6), 765-771.

Raikes, H., Pan, B., Luze, G., Tamis-LeMonde, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Constantine, J., Tarullo, L., & Rodriguez, E.  (2007).  Mother-child book reading in low income families:  Correlates and outcomes in the first three years of life.  Child Development, 77(4), 924-953.

Roberts, J., Jurgens, J., & Burchinal, M.  (2005).  The role of home literacy practices in preschool children’s language and emergent literacy skills.  Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 48(2), 345-359.

Serpell, R., Baker, L., & Sonnenschein, S. (2005).  Becoming literate in the city: The Baltimore Early Childhood Project. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Sne’chal, M., & LeFevre, J.  (2002).  Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skill:  A five-year longitudinal study.  Child Development. 73(2), 445-460.

Zucker, T., Ward, A., & Justice, L. (2009). Print referencing during read-alouds: A technique for increasing emergent readers’ print knowledge.  The Reading Teacher, 63(1), 62-72.