As an early childhood educator, I know the importance of reading to young children. It sounds so simple and, to be honest, a little unbelievable, but reading to a child for 20 minutes every day from the time she is a baby is the simplest, most-effective thing a parent can do to ensure long-term academic success. Reading to babies doesn't just have long-term benefits. It also promotes early language development and provides the perfect jump-start for a lifelong love of learning. Rob and I were so excited to read with Dessa when she first arrived and we loved reading to her.
Then, slowly, things began to change. We were both just trying to get through the day and juggle all of the needs of our baby girl. As weeks past, there were more and more days where to looked at each other after we finally laid Dessa in her crib for the night and realized that neither of us had read to her. We hoped that Dessa's caregivers had found time to read to her during the day, but it wasn't right to put that responsibility on them so we knew we had to make a more conscious effort of reading to our daughter every single day.
Incorporating Books into Our Daily Routine
Rob and I usually do well with routines, so I tried to find an easy way to make reading to Dessa part of our daily routine in the home and then it finally hit me to read to Dessa while she had a bottle. It made so much sense. It was the perfect quiet time when we were already snuggling with her and giving her our best attention. Why not add a book to the equation and make it an extra meaningful snuggle?
We placed a handful of books in a small basket within easy reach on our coffee table for quick access whenever Dessa was ready to for a bottle with an assortment of books beside the rocking chair in Dessa's nursery for she could enjoy a few stories during her bedtime bottle.
Every time we were ready to snuggle up with Dessa and a bottle, we reached over, grabbed a few books and provided Dessa with the old-school, baby version of dinner and a show. No surprise, she was completely entranced and we finally had a consistent routine that helped to ensure a strong language foundation for our baby girl.
As Dessa grew and slowly weaned off the bottle, our daily reading habit didn't waver. We simply transitioned from reading with a bottle to reading to Dessa before she went into her crib. Dessa kept her nighttime bottle until she was 12 months old, but by then, books were the real hero of Dessa's nighttime routine. Having books to look at actually helped to provide the perfect distraction when we finally said goodbye to the bottle.
Spontaneously Reading Beyond our Routine
Today we sill maintain the habit of reading books with Dessa before she goes down for a nap or to bed at night, but Dessa's love for books has relieved all the pressure we felt during the first few months of her life. Dessa often helps herself to books throughout the day. She walks over to her book baskets and leafs through her favorites or brings a book to one of us for a spontaneous daytime story. We now read far beyond the daily recommended amount of 20 minutes a day and I can already see how the daily dose of books and has begun to enhance her language development.
Learning to Respect and Care for Books
Teaching Dessa to properly care for her books turned out to be a simpler process than I envisioned as well. Everything I had read about babies and books said that parents shouldn't discourage infants from chewing on board books and I wanted to follow the advice, but I didn't want Dessa to chew all of her baby books. So we compromised. I let Dessa chew on one book as much as she wanted. Anytime baby Dessa got a hankering for a some delicious cardboard pages, I simply traded whatever book was in Dessa's hands for her designated chewing book (in this case, it was Pajama Time by Sandra Boynton). This method worked so well and the only recommendation I have for any families who want to try this same strategy is to select a book with a light-colored cover for baby to chew. Dessa often had black bits cardboard all over her face after chewing on this particular book and a pastel book cover wouldn't have looked quite so alarming.
Interacting with Grown Up Books
As Dessa saw Rob and I reading our own books, she naturally developed a curiosity in grown-up books. As soon as Dessa was mobile, she became fascinated with the paperback books we kept on the media console in our previous house and did everything she could to get her hands on them. Dessa especially wanted to leaf through the pages of one book in particular: The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic by Matthew Kelly. It wasn't an expensive book and we had two copies from a book study at our church, so we let it become Dessa's book. Even though she was only 8 months old, we never stopped her from touching the book or leafing through the pages. Dessa learned so much about how to gently handle a book with real pages from those little moments of exploration and her copy of the book lasted for months before she finally lost interest and it was beat up enough to merit a trip to the household recycle bin.
Now that Dessa has grown to love and appreciate books, her fascination with grown-up books hasn't diminished. She loves to touch her grandmother's family bible and the heavy hymnals at church. We have always closely supervised Dessa while she touches the delicate pages of those books and remind her to turn the pages gently, but those experiences help her continue to learn about proper book handling and she has never intentionally damaged the precious pages inside.
Moving Beyond Board Books
Even with all of her experience handling grown up hardcover and paperback books, I honestly thought my 19 month old daughter was still to young to be trusted to read a hardcover picture book unsupervised. Last month, I winced and feared the worst when another adult put a hardcover book in her hands, but it turns out that I had nothing to worry about! I was amazed at how nicely she handled the book as she leafed through it. Children's picture book pages are much thicker and sturdier than the delicate sheets in the church hymnal and Dessa applied all of the skills that we have been working on together for the past 10 months. Since then, I have added several hardcover books in Dessa's book baskets throughout the house and I don't even bat an eye when Dessa looks through them independently. Board books are still the majority of Dessa's reading material because the content inside is usually the best fit for her development, but we enjoy exposing her to a few slightly longer stories and more complex pictures contained in the hardcover books during our daily story times.
The funny thing about parenting is that just when we nail down a great system, something changes that makes us adapt and form new systems to meet the needs of our ever-changing daughter. I am certain that we will find new challenges as Dessa continues to develop and grow, but it is so incredibly reassuring to know that we are already on the right track. Our daughter adores books, her language development continues to progress, and maintaining this forward momentum is the best thing we can possibly do to equip her for academic success throughout her life.
Life is busy and it can be incredibly easy to let reading slip through the cracks when you have a newborn in the house, putting the task off until a more pressing time. Believe me, I know exactly how that feels and we were those parents for longer than I am comfortable admitting. The good news is that it's never too late (or too early!) to get started and start building some momentum.
I'll be the first to admit that we don't have everything figured out (and we never will!) We would love to hear some of your best tips and tricks to ignite a love of reading or keep the flame alive as your children grow. Any insight you have to share is always appreciated, so please don't hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments!