From as young as a couple of days old, we were putting books in front of Ada. At the beginning, her little round tummy was constantly full of milk, her eyes always slightly droopy with sleepy satisfaction and she would lean back against my chest contentedly, gently opening and closing her tiny baby mouth. I would turn the pages of a picture book and she would unfurl a wrinkly hand and maybe move it ever-so-slightly in the general direction of the page and I would feel a swell of pride and awe. I’m a children’s picture book editor and to be able to share books with Ada filled me with such a warm glow.
I said to myself, I’ll read to her every day. Even if we don’t make it to the end, let’s just try – a book a day.
Very soon, Ada responded. Her hands reached out and landed on the pages. She stroked or smacked the page with interest. Now, when you put a book in front of her, she lunges at it – head first – and makes a noise I can’t quite capture in words … a kind of excited baby yelling. She loves to open and close it, over and over, and, of course, stick it in her mouth.
There was one day when I had a fellow mum over to visit and I had put a beautiful big hardback book about birds in front of Ada. And the mum said to me, impressed, “Look, she’s reading!” and I was super casual (beaming on the inside). There Ada was, turning the pages of this book as cool as you like, at four months old. Then, as I made some tea and fussed with some biscuits, I noticed that Ada was suspiciously quiet … her little fuzzy head was bowed down over the book in some sort of deep reverie, and her hands were all curled up underneath her chin.I had a closer look. Ah, bits of blue paper and saliva were now strewn across her ridiculously happy face. Maybe Ada loves books so much she wants to EAT them?
Now, at six months, it’s hard to get Ada to sit still. She’s beginning to lengthen and strengthen and wriggle and roll and do funny yoga moves and she becomes distracted by even the tiniest piece of fluff. Sometimes I just have to let her roll off my lap and explore around her but I will continue reading with great gusto and hand gestures and, you know what, she will come back for more. I pick books that are bright and bold and exciting to look at. I choose ones with textures and flaps, crinkly soft ones, sturdy board ones, books with rhymes and rollicking rhythm. Ones that excite me to read to her as much as it excites her to hear them.
What I always knew but now understand more profoundly after having my own child is that babies are simply never too young to be read to. As soon as babies come out of the womb they are communicating – they cry, they lock eyes with you, they instinctively respond to and gravitate toward the sound of your voice. They are social beings and behind that squidgy round face (oh, those CHEEKS!), their synapses are constantly fizzling and crackling and downloading information. Think of reading to them as opening little doors in their brains, unlocking new words and new worlds. Furthermore, studies have shown that babies actually respond MORE – both emotionally and physically – to expressive faces, hand gestures and that sing-songy voice we all instinctively adopt: “parentese”. Reading a story naturally lends itself to ALL of these things.
When your bubba begins to chat to you in babbling gurgling streams, reading helps develop and fine tune that conversation. Without thinking about it too much, we naturally read in longer, more varied sentences and that helps builds their vocabulary. And, in the grander scheme of things, reading helps them to imagine lives beyond their own, to understand more about the world, to feel empowered to express themselves. They can see themselves reflected back in picture book characters; they see babies and children different to them and learn empathy and understanding.
And, of course, there is the physical closeness that comes with reading. Reading to them means that they hear your voice and they smell you close to them. Before bedtime, Ada will stay still just long enough for us to share a book together in peace. She’ll tuck herself in close and rest her head against my chest and, in that moment, I am humming with delight. This sparkly-eyed six-month old human that I made is snuggling against me, sharing my passion.
And so I’ll read to her, every day.