Reading to Babies – It’s Easier than You Think!

By Gwen Vanderhage, MLIS

Mother Reading to Baby_1070336402When you suggest that it’s never too early to start reading to children, parents of newborn bundles of joy may look at you with shock-widened eyes (though that might just be due to lack of sleep). “Owen can’t see the pictures yet.” “Riley won’t understand what I’m reading, can’t I just sing?” “Ava can’t sit up or hold a book yet.”

Pediatricians and educators stress that you can read absolutely anything to an infant; what matters is that they hear language and inflection, and that adults are interacting with them using language. While it’s true that you really can read anything to a baby, once they are beginning to grab the book and really engage, it’s time to trade out the morning newspaper and your Dickens novel for age-appropriate material.

Here are the kinds of books I recommend parents and librarians share with babies and toddlers.

  • Books with photographs of people — especially babies — and animals
  • Interactive books like touch and feel, lift the flap, slide and pull, and follow the line
  • Books with basic concepts and vocabulary: ABCs, 123s, emotions, opposites, things around the house, etc.
  • Nursery rhyme and song books
  • Books with very, very short stories
  • Books you love

That all sounds easy enough, and maybe you are comfortable sharing those suggestions with parents. But the idea of hosting a storytime for the littlest patrons may sound more daunting. “How will the babies sit still for storytime?” “If the babies aren’t interacting, won’t the parents judge me?” “What will I do to engage babies for half an hour?!”

Have no fear! The babies won’t judge any of us and neither will those tired, grateful parents. If your library does not host a baby storytime, how might you start one?

My very first foray into storytime was for toddler storytime offered at a children’s book shop where I worked. We read board books out loud, the babies crawled around, and the parents bought board books to take home (hopefully the copies their little ones had sampled and found delicious). This was an entirely new concept for me; I hadn’t encountered baby and toddler storytimes in my local library or in my graduate program. But here was this completely game store owner reading and singing in front of 30+ parents and babies twice a week in her magical (albeit cramped) shop. One day she was out sick, and it became my turn. That’s when I came to appreciate how much we learn by example and that reading to a large group of babies is really no big deal.

Here are the basics I learned. Pick one of each of these three types of books:

  1. Start with a very familiar book like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. or Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton. If you luck out, many parents will know these books and chant along with you. Now you are more comfortable.
  2. You can just talk your way through a book of shapes or colors, while encouraging babies to touch and feel. Talk and point, while describing the pictures. “What is the doggie doing? What color is his ball?” Books must be short and don’t need a plot. In fact, sometimes it’s better if they are not “stories.”
  3. Sing the nursery rhymes! Song books capture babies’ attention and the parents often know the songs so they’ll help you by singing along. Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, parents will keep coming back and they won’t report you to local authorities.

Reading to Babies_341582651Once I was in the children’s library and performing regular baby storytimes, I expanded on that three-book format to include fingerplay rhymes, bounces, songs, puppets, instruments, and even a circle march for early walkers. The key is to alternate activities. Begin with the same song each week. Read the longest book first. Follow it with a fingerplay repeated twice and then a lap bounce. Read another book. Do some egg shaker rhymes and songs. Read another book. Rhyme. Sing. Done! Truthfully, it’s too much to expect a baby or toddler storytime to last more than 20 minutes. The attention span just isn’t there, even with songs.

Many days, the babies call the shots. Your storytime may dissolve into a happy session of crawling and singing. That’s okay! One of the main purposes of library storytime is to model reading, singing, talking, and playing to caregivers. Even a mom with a third child or a seasoned grandparent will find something new to take away from your time together and try at home. Baby storytime gives parents a break from being alone with their little ones. Friendships form, learning happens, literacy begins, and hopefully they check out books. One library where I worked provided 30 copies of each board book so parents could read along with the librarian or at their own pace. It was lovely.

Your youngest patrons can be an enthusiastic, appreciative audience, and they’re waiting for you to take the plunge! Consider giving baby storytime a try at your public library. If you already provide baby storytimes, what wisdom can you share with the rest of us?

Here are some additional resources:

  • Mother Goose on the Loose, by Betsy Diamant-Cohen (there are a few books in the series)
  • Reading to Babies, Toddlers, and Twos, by Susan Straub and K.J. Dell’Antonia
  • The Jbrary channel on YouTube has a wealth of videos demonstrating songs, rhymes, and fingerplays you can use in your own storytime.

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