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Help! My newborn hates to read.

baby_books_smallBy now, we all know the benefits of reading to children from birth. The emotional bonding, the language development, the cognitive skills. Plus, there’s a sleep benefit, as Dr. Robert Needlman of Reach Out and Read discussed at the Horn Book’s Fostering Lifelong Learners symposium a few years ago. Tiny babies need to learn to fall asleep, and reading aloud can help signal the transition from wakefulness to sleep, even in infancy. Well, that seems reasonable, but what if our littlest ones don’t follow the good doctor’s orders?

Mine sure didn’t. When my children were babies, I tried mightily to get them interested in books, but they weren’t having it. They were too busy squirming, crying, bouncing, pulling up, clinging, crawling, crying (did I already say that?), etc., to sit still and listen to a story. When it came to the books themselves, their preferences were tasting, dropping, and throwing. It made me sad and a little panicky that this meant they were never going to like books.

To make a long story short, my husband and I eventually came to the conclusion that babies didn’t need homework and new parents didn’t either. We were already being inundated with rights-and-wrongs. Reading is good! Breast milk is best! Co-sleeping is bad! (Or, wait, is it good?) Yes, perhaps in a perfect world. But in the real world of work and school and siblings and just keeping things together: maybe.

So, we kept trying with the books, but in a lower-key sort of way. And by about a year old, both boys were all about the books. Caps for Sale, Frog and Toad, George and Martha. Soon we were reading morning, noon, and/or (over)night, and naturally, rather than forcibly, incorporating books into the bedtime routine. (Did this actually make them fall asleep? Not usually. And were we always reading great literature? We were not.)

So, yes! Of course! Read to them. It’s totally worth it. But don’t feel bad if some days You. Just. Can’t. There are always those days when you could barely remember your own name, let alone crack open a book. Maybe your baby already loves books. Maybe she doesn’t seem to care. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. But always keep in mind the new-parent mantra: with babies things are bound to change, and sometimes even for the better!

p.s. Who remembers those ads for “Your Baby Can Read!”? Shocker! No he can’t!

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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Comments

  1. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    While my livelihood at least slightly depends on the idea that reading to babies is a good thing, is it really necessary? Does the baby even understand what you are doing? I get that the sound of your voice is both calming and developmentally helpful to a baby but does it really much matter what you are saying? I’ve known parents who would simply read aloud whatever it was they happened to be reading for their on enjoyment on the grounds that Junior can’t tell the difference.

  2. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    It’s a lovely idea! Reading rapturously with your tiny baby. It’s just… hard. Newborn parenting is hard, people! Secret’s out. Even if you lurve children’s books and can’t wait to indoctrinate the little buggers into the cult of reading.

  3. Mindy Lawrence says:

    This was my experience almost exactly with my daughter who is now 16 months old and a rabid lover of books. I’m a librarian so I viewed it to be my moral obligation to instill in my daughter an intense passion for literature straight out of the womb. But she had her own ideas. She hated being read to and it was such a disheartening experience every time we sat to read – she’d start crying or thrashing and my dream of cozy reading time shared with my beloved baby was dashed nearly every time. And then something changed around a year, something just clicked with her and she started running up to me with books and now she definitely has her favorites that we read over and over and over again (I’m looking at you, “Uni the Unicorn”). It took us time, but it happened and nothing makes me prouder.

  4. A bedtime read is a lovely tradition, but there are other options that are often overlooked. Like quiet songs and lullabies and stories about when we were young. You can even suggest imaginary places to visit when a child drifts off to dreamland.

  5. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    It’s tough when it’s something you love to do and want to do and know you should do and are *told* you should do… but it’s just not happening for whatever reason at that moment in time.

  6. Rachel Payne says:

    My livelihood definitely depends on the message that babies need books. Reach Out and Read recently expanded their age recommendation, and now advocate for babies to be read with from birth (it was previously six months). Studies have shown that even young babies can recognize the difference between storybook language and regular conversation.
    They also recognize the rhythm of stories that were read to them in the womb after they are born (it even has a calming effect and slows the baby’s heart rate). Reading also gives a parents a chance to slow down and give their child a concentrated dose of spoken language. All of this is building brain architecture, synapse by synapse.

    Content may not make much of a difference in the first few months (the rhythm is the thing), but after that I think we need books that help children name and understand their world. The Origin of Species in board book form is not going to work (yes, this actually exists and K T Horning wrote about it in Horn Book here: http://www.hbook.com/1997/03/choosing-books/board-books-go-boom/).

    Reading with a baby (and a toddler) does look different than reading with kids who sit rapturously in your lap. Babies have so much going on physically and developmentally it is no wonder they are listening one minute and then squirming/crying/you-name-it the next. I always recommend following your child’s lead. Don’t force it. And let babies play with books:
    open and shut them, pull on the pages, and put them in their mouths. Read and talk to them while they are happy, playing, nursing- whatever works for you and your baby. It is going to look different for each baby and each family.

    My experience was the opposite of Elissa’s and Mindy’s. As a newborn, reading was a breeze. At age 12 months, he wouldn’t sit for any book unless it had copious amounts of flaps.

    So take it at your own pace. Experiment and play with books. For babies, it is not a cover-to-cover, “20 minutes a day experience, but that is OK.

  7. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Thank you, Rachel! Where were you when I was in tears with my “book-hating” newborn? 🙂 What you say makes so much sense — Yes! Read! But don’t beat yourself up about it. (At least, I *think* that’s what you’re saying…)

  8. My firstborn’s favorite activity when small was to rip paper. It made such a wonderful sound! We didn’t have many board books, so we had to keep books away from him. (We had to turn our own books around in the bookshelves, because he’d rip the covers.) But — around a year old, he learned that books were fun to listen to and actually knew his letters by two years old. So it was a dramatic change from not letting him near books. All in good time.

  9. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Thanks, Sondy. “All in good time” is an excellent mantra (though sometimes hard to remember…)

  10. This article and the comments make me feel SO much better. My baby is 4 months and has almost always cried when I start to read to him. I usually have to put the book to the side so he can’t see it or do it while we are laying and looking up like a game. So I know I have faith it’s not me, or him, or the books…or something else. Hopefully with time he’ll start to enjoy it, as both my husband and I love to read and I can’t wait to read together before bedtime. Thank you for this article!

  11. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Yes, Beth, glad you are here!

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