Language Development: Major Dos and Don’ts of Reading With Baby

by , under Child Development, Language and Reading Skills

It is never too soon to start reading to baby!  Not only will it help with baby’s language development, but setting a routine of reading a book to baby every day will help you bond!

I can read anything I want, right?

You may think, “Heck, baby doesn’t know what I’m reading, so I’ll just read from Sports Illustrated.” You are wrong, mister (or ma’am).  A baby’s brain is designed from the moment he can hear sounds in utero (yes, baby can hear you in the womb) to hone in on the sounds that make up the language he’ll be born into.  That is one reason, for example, why native Chinese speakers have trouble with the “la” sound.  It’s not a sound made in their language, and thus they don’t learn it from birth.  There is even research that suggests babies repeat vowel sounds first because these sounds are more guttural, and therefore louder in the womb.

“Like constructing a house, brains are built upon a strong foundation. This starts before birth, and is very important during the first three years of life. Brain cells are “raw” materials — much like lumber is a raw material in building a house, and a child’s experiences and interactions help build the structure, put in the wiring, and paint the walls.”

– Judith Graham, “Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn”

Why am I telling you all this linguistic bibble-babble?  Because you need to know that baby needs to hear words and sounds that will makeup his lexicon (i.e. his word bank).  Do you want baby saying offensive strategy, carburetor, and spark plug before he can say, “Hey!  I need to potty”?  I thought not.  Therefore, what you pick to read to baby needs to be age-appropriate.

Why can’t I just talk to baby?  Won’t he learn language that way?

Part of learning language is listening to everyday speech.  In fact, research suggests that grammar and sentence structure building is not innate (meaning it’s not something they automatically do, like blinking) and that babies actually learn the descriptive grammar (see prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar) of their language through listening and practicing.

“Human speech and birdsong have numerous parallels.  Both humans and songbirds learn their complex vocalizations early in life, exhibiting a strong dependence on hearing the adults they will imitate, as well as themselves as they practice, and a waning of this dependence as they mature.”

– Allison J. Doupe and Patricia K. Kuhl, “Birdsong and Human Speech: Common Themes and Mechanisms”

Babies also like listening to your reading voice and can even distinguish between regular, everyday tone of voice and reading tone.  It is important to read to baby so that in the future, he will mimic what you do.  He’ll be more likely to pick up a book and open it if he sees you doing it.  Also, while you read you should point to the words and corresponding pictures to reinforce that what you are speaking is written on the page and is referring to things in the world.  For example: pointing to the word “horse” while you read the word horse shows that the sound you are making looks like “horse” spelled out on the page.  Also, pointing to a picture of a horse while you say the word reinforces that this object/picture is a horse.

How Late Is Too Late To Start Reading to Baby?

While there is no such thing as reading to baby too early, there is such a thing as starting too late.  Right now, baby’s brain is growing rapidly and absorbing information faster than it will ever do the rest of its life.  There is also such a thing as a “window of learning” called the critical period.  If a child does not learn basic literacy and language skills within the first decade of life (scientific estimates range from 8 to 12 years of age), he may never learn those skills.

How do I fit reading to baby into our day?

It doesn’t really matter what time of day you read to baby.  What does matter is that you try to read to baby each day.  Here are some ways you can fit it in to your schedule:

  • Read while baby is playing on his play gym or sitting in his swing
  • Set a bedtime routine.  As you rock baby to sleep, pull out a book and read.  The sing-song sound of your voice as you read may even help lull him to sleep.  And routines also help with getting baby to sleep more easily.
  • Sit baby in his bouncer in the kitchen.  Prop up a book on a book stand and read to him while you prepare a meal.
  • Walk around the house and read to baby while he’s in his baby carrier.


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Language Development: Major Dos and Don’ts of Reading With Baby

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Doupe, Allison J. and Patricia K. Kuhl. “Birdsong and Human Speech: Common Themes and Mechanisms.” Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco. Annual Review of Neuroscience (1999), 22: 567–631. Web. 3 February 2013.
Graham, Judith. “Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn.” The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Publications. 2011. Web. 3 February 2013.
Schlenker, P. “Rules of Language: Description vs. Prescription.” Introduction to the Study of Language UCLA, Lecture Notes 1A (9 January 2006): page 3. Web. 4 February 2013.
“Twenty Ways to Boost Your Baby’s Brain Power.” Parents (of Parents&Child Magazine) at Web. 3 February 2013.