Is Reading to Infants Too Early?

Dear Dr. Ellie,

Recently, I heard on TV that Disney, the company that produces all the Baby Einstein products, has come out and said there is no proof that playing tapes and talking to the baby before it is born helps make the baby smarter. But the ladies on The View all agreed that there’s no harm in it, especially after the baby is born. Well, what about reading to the baby? How old should the baby be before I can start reading to her?

Confused Expectant Mom

Dear Expectant Mom,

Why not start reading to your baby the day she is born? There is no reason why you cannot start reading to the baby while she is in your arms being cuddled, or while you are relaxing on the sofa or in bed. What you read makes little difference, as the baby is clueless about the meaning of the words you are uttering and is becoming accustomed to the speech patterns and sounds around her. That you read and interact with her is what is critical.

Read aloud your magazines, novels, newspapers, holy book — even recipes and directions for putting together a bookcase — for your baby to hear. Seeing you use printed material and hearing your voice as you do it will instill an association that is ultimately pleasant and associated with many activities. As Baby grows and you start to read picture books with her, the enjoyment will increase. Before you know it, she will be imitating your reading behaviors.

Do not forget to discuss with your child the stories you read together or those she independently “reads” (and later, actually reads). If she asks about what you are reading, be sure to respond with a short summary. You can even ask some questions or talk about similarities between your own reading material and home or the neighborhood.

Read to and with your child, and interact about the meanings and situations. There is no better way to get your child hooked on reading than to do it together. And the sooner you start, the sooner and stronger your child will associate reading with a natural part of life, and an enjoyable activity to do.

3 thoughts on “Is Reading to Infants Too Early?

  1. Thanks, Richard. The study of language acquisition is fascinating. Infants "select" the sounds from their environment and the intonations used in the family's "mother speak." Although they can continue incorporating "outside" sounds for quite a while, it becomes very difficult for humans to easily "hear" and mimic new sounds after puberty.

    We know that there are sounds in other languages that we can't hear, just like many Asian cultures have trouble hearing the difference between the Western "r" and "l" sounds. We hear tones from Eastern musical scales as cacophonous or off-key, while those cultures perceive pure harmonious notes.

    Again, thanks for your contributions, Richard!

  2. Interestingly, I heard a story on NPR on Friday about a study that looked at the crying patterns of French vs. German newborns. What they found was that French newborns cried with a tonal lilt from lower pitch to higher pitch whereas German newborns did the opposite. The argument was that the difference agreed with the typical tonal lilt of sentences spoken in their respective tongues. The conclusion, of course, is that babies are learning certain things about speech at very young ages.