Why newborns don't need books

Hoffman believes there are better ways to expose your baby to language

I’m about to risk the wrath of the entire literacy community, but I just have to challenge the notion that parents should start reading to babies at birth — an idea advocates are pushing.

“It is not so important what is read to children in the first few months, just that something is read.” So says Reading Is Fundamental, the oldest and largest non-profit literacy organization in the US. “Newborns benefit from reading too!” — from an A to Z list of family literacy activities from ABC Canada, Canada’s most prominent literacy group.

I couldn’t disagree more. Before I tell you why, let me be clear about a few things.

Literacy and books are very, very important to me. Pre-reading literacy is critical. I think parents should be encouraged to introduce babies to books (looking at the pages, talking about the pictures) in the latter half of the first year. But I’ll go out on a limb and say it is not important to read to infants under six months. I don’t even think it’s a particularly good idea.

Now, if you read books to your newborn and you’re about to take umbrage, let’s make an important distinction. There’s a big difference between what some parents decide to try on their own and what we advise all parents to do. Individual parents (myself included) try all sorts of things to calm, connect with and entertain babies. If you find it enjoyable or comforting to read to your newborn, and if the baby seems to like it, I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is telling all parents that it’s important to read to newborns, and implying that this will somehow make them better readers.

I defy someone to show me the evidence.

There are far more important things to do with young babies than read to them. Newborns were designed to have their gaga parents hold them, care for them and smile, sing, play with their little tootsies and say, “Where’s your little bunnikins nosey wosey?” Sure, some infants enjoy looking at a picture from a book while being changed, or a bit later, chewing on a cloth book. One of my babies fell in love with a picture of Prairie Dawn in a Sesame Street board book, but the next was just as captivated by a drawing of a face that my wife sketched.

Reading exposes infants to their native language, which is vital, but there are far better and easier ways to do that. Like chanting “This Little Piggy Went to Market” in a goofy mommy or daddy voice, with your delighted face about 12 inches away from the baby’s (not buried in a book).

That kind of interaction gets an infant’s attention — and gets mom or dad a response. This two-way communication is vital to infant development, parent development and, I would argue, future literacy. The parents learn to read the baby’s cues. Parents who figure that out generally do all sorts of the right things, including introducing books at an appropriate time.

Fortunately, these sorts of parents usually have the capacity to reject well-intentioned but poorly thought-out advice. Still, I picture a dutiful but unconnected parent sitting in a rocking chair reading to a newborn who is obliviously gazing at some inexplicably interesting pattern on mom’s sweater or lying in a crib wishing someone would pick her up.

Yes, some parents don’t read to their children enough, some don’t realize the benefits of reading to very young children, and it’s simpler to tell people to read from birth than to figure out the exact age when it makes the most sense. But simplistic, dumbed-down advice is seldom helpful. If you want to give literacy advice to new parents, tell them to get connected, hold their babies and enjoy some time up close — chatting, singing, cuddling and, above all, paying attention to how the infant responds. Save the books for later.