The most important gift you can give your baby is to read aloud to him, according to Sheilah Egan, a children's book expert who works at A Likely Story, a children's bookstore in Alexandria, Va. In fact, she says, begin reading aloud to your baby in the womb, choosing rhythmic, rhyming stories, such as Mother Goose rhymes or poems. Your baby, who already knows your voice, will be soothed by the quiet rhythms of such books, creating a happy, serene environment in utero.
Once your baby is born, make reading a special time. Hold him close, snuggling together with the book. He'll soon associate books with the pleasure of having you all to himself. Books are a great conversation starter — from pointing out colors and objects with babies to dealing with moving to a new home, new siblings and potty training later on.
Make books and story time a part of your youngster's day, and as he gets older, incorporate books and reading into activities, from consulting a recipe for a special dessert to helping with shopping lists or experiencing the joy of a card or a letter from a loved one. Books on tape can be an excellent companion on car trips or when you can't stop for story time.
Egan suggests that parents looking for activities that can help your youngster become an avid reader consult Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready by June Oberlander (third edition, Bio Alpha, 2000). A retired kindergarten teacher, Oberlander wrote the book to advise her daughter-in-law on activities she could do with her new daughter from birth to age 5.
See the next page for book recommendations by age.
Birth to 3 Months
Your baby's hearing is quite acute. Start with rhythmic and rhyming books, advises Egan.
Your baby's vision is still developing. Choose books with fairly uncluttered pictures, with good contrast and a nice mix of faces. Books with photos, particularly of babies, are especially good choices.
Engage in dialogue with your baby. When he makes sounds, respond to him. Call and response is important for his developing language skills.
Choose books with high contrast of colors and shapes.
When you read, point to objects on the page. Your baby will soon begin to associate what he sees on the page with what you are saying, explains Egan.
Sing with your baby, and recite old familiar songs from your own childhood. There are also books based on I'm a Little Teapot and many other old favorites.
Books about the world around your baby — bees, flowers, animals — and books that incorporate sounds, such as animal sounds, are wonderful additions to your baby's growing library.
Photo-illustrated books featuring colors, simple objects and babies, such as I Love Colors and Baby Faces by Margaret Miller (Little Simon) offer opportunities to identify familiar items.
Continue to choose visually stimulating books with simple, relatively uncluttered pictures. Books such as Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (Harpercollins)and others combining beautiful illustrations with rhythmic language continue to be popular, says children's bookseller Egan.
As you read to your baby now, begin pointing to words as you read. It helps him to begin understanding that we read from left to right and top to bottom — and that these objects on the page translate to the sounds he hears.
Touch becomes particularly important now. Choose books such as Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt (Golden Books) and titles from the Dorling Kindersley Touch and Feel series.
Babies explore everything with their mouths. Choose sturdy board books with rounded corners, which hold up better to chewing and avoid accidental pokes in the eye.
Books based on familiar baby games can be a springboard to enjoying old and new finger plays and rhyming games.
Mama, Do You Love Me by Barbara M. Joosse (Chronicle) and similar books, help reinforce a baby's confidence that his parents' love is unconditional — even if he does something naughty.
Your youngster will become "in love" with certain books and insist that they be read over and over. Don't even try to skip a page or change the inflection when you read. You'll simply have to begin again. He treasures the security of predictability.
By this age your youngster is beginning to have the dexterity to help you turn pages.
"Lift the flap" books offer surprises and the opportunity for activity. Choose sturdy books but remember that these are made to be used and may not survive to be passed on to others.
Your toddler is developing a sense of humor now. Choose books that play with language, and don't be afraid to be silly. Sandra Boynton's books, including Moo Baa, La, La, La! and But Not the Hippopatamus (Little Simon) are especially popular with younger toddlers.
Young toddlers are classifying the world and rapidly adding new words to their vocabulary, both understood and spoken. Choose books with things to point at and say.
Around one year, invest in a well-illustrated book of Mother Goose. Choose one with a single illustrated poem on a page, such as My Very First Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie (Candlewick Press). The repetition and rhythm of these familiar rhymes make them easy to memorize. The things memorized early in life stay with us and provide a platform for comparing new experiences to familiar knowledge. As these become familiar, try playing "fill in the blanks" with them, "Jack and Jill went up the …" Predicting is an important building block to learning.
Books with richly rhythmic language that explore familiar incidents in a youngster's life are very popular. Wrapping Paper Romp by Patricia Hubbell (Harpercollins) explores the joys of opening a present. Her Pots and Pans (Harpercollins) celebrates the simple joys of making noise with ready-made kitchen instruments.
High-definition, colorful illustrations can help your baby explore the natural world. Bumble Bee (Harpercollins) pairs Margaret Wise Brown's lively poem with Victoria Raymond's sculptured illustrations for an early playful encounter with a familiar insect.
Books containing lots to look at and identify and a sense of humor are fun for older toddlers. Wordless books offer great opportunities to explore the details on the page. Ten Minutes Till Bedtime by Peggy Rathmann (Putnam) is a hilarious look at what happens when a little boy's pet hamster offers 10-minute hamster tours on a Web site and the hordes arrive just before bed. Her Good Night Gorilla (Putnam) follows the escapades of a zoo full of animals as the gorilla steals the keys from the night watchman.
When reading to your youngster, ask questions to help him learn to predict what's going to happen next or about choices the characters are making. "Do we do that in our house?" "What time of day is this?" Making these kinds of connections is key to learning in the future.
Make music and art an important part of your toddler's day. Dancing not only helps your youngster's large muscle skills but also enhances his neurological connections. Cutting, tearing and pasting offer great personal satisfaction when the artwork is displayed on the refrigerator, but they also stimulate the brain.
Choose beautifully illustrated books. You're helping your youngster to develop artistic taste that will last a lifetime.