0 - 12 Months

Reading to babies: How to make early literacy development easy & fun

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“Anytime we need a reset, the day is just not going our way, or one of us is in a funky mood, I reach for a book.”

Sami Carrick, certified reading specialist, Sunny Seed

Jessica Rolph welcomes Sami Carrick to this episode to talk about that magical moment of connection with your baby: story time. And all those who have read a book to an infant know that it doesn’t always go as planned! We know how important it is to read to our babies, but what should we do if they are crawling out of our laps, crazily flipping pages, or just plain not interested in what’s on the page?

Sami shares how teaching literacy can take lots of forms. She is a certified reading specialist and the mom behind Sunny Seed.

Key Takeaways:

[1:30] Reading to a newborn: Sami explains how this might look.

[2:34] Position your newborn baby so they can see your facial expressions while you are reading.

[3:04] Consider incorporating a book at nap time and bedtime to help create predictability for your baby.

[3:31] When to introduce sensory books to babies.

[4:26] Tips to engage your baby in reading when they don’t seem to be able to stop moving or are uninterested.

[6:28] Sami shares practical tips to help a child learn how to turn the pages.

[8:01] The benefits of adding rubber bands to the pages.

[8:48] How to incorporate reading in the daily routine outside of bedtime.

[10:24] The importance of using a dramatic, animated voice while reading to your baby.

[11:50] Tips for parents to teach literacy early on.

[13:54] Sami explains why learning letter sounds is more important than being able to recite the ABCs.

[16:22] The benefits of incorporating sign language into a child’s day.

Mentioned in this episode:



Books with torn flaps… soggy, gummed up pages… sticky covers.

If you are parent to a baby, this may describe a good deal of your personal library. All of this is totally normal.

We all long for that beautiful moment of connection over a favorite storybook…But reading with a baby can feel more like a test of our patience.

Today’s guest is here to re-assure us that teaching literacy to our children can take lots of forms. Sami Carrick is a certified reading specialist and the mom behind Literacy for Littles.

Jessica: Hi Sami, it’s so good to have you here with us. Not only or are you a literacy expert but you’re also a parent of a three-year-old and a 10-month old.

Sami: Yes.

Jessica: So, welcome. Thanks so much for being here.

Sami: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity.

Tips for reading to babies

Jessica: And I wanted to start with reading. We all know how important it is to read to our children, but I wanted to get your tips on what it looks like to read to babies. So, let’s take the newborn stage. What tips do you have for reading, to newborns? 

Sami: I’m so glad you’re starting with newborns, I know it can seem a little silly to start reading to them but they are actually absorbing so much. There was this one study where mothers were instructed to read Dr Seuss out loud when they were pregnant and then when the babies were born the researchers tested to see if they recognize the Dr. Seuss against other stories, and their mother’s voice against other readers, and in both cases infants were able to pick up on those patterns that they heard in utero. So it is a really amazing…

Jessica: Wow! 

Sami: Yeah, and there’s even some hospitals that are starting these reading programs in the NICU, so that parents can help reduce stress and create these bonds and help that brain development, even with babies who are are battling so many things. So, starting from the beginning is just crucial in developing a healthy habit and a healthy family culture that surrounds reading. And so, with newborns, I really like to even prop them up against my leg so that they can face me, and see my facial expressions. We know that when babies are born they’re near-sighted, they can only see about 10 inches away from their face. So this can be really helpful for them, when they’re learning and absorbing all of those words. And it can also be really comforting. So, even when a baby is in tummy time, you could lay next to them and read a book.

Another thing is, around seven weeks old, babies start to understand bedtime routines. So you could even add a bedtime book, which creates this predictable signal that it’s time to sleep. And we know that when there’s predictability babies are a lot less likely to fight it, and so then that helps us when they’re toddlers too. [chuckle]

Jessica: Yes, I love that. I especially love the tip of propping your baby up on your leg and having them face you while you read to them. I think that it really… They love your face and they love seeing you, and so it feels so much more connected, but it also is so practical, because it’s a great way to engage them in the book. So I love that tip. What about the stage when babies are just mouthing everything and they’re learning so much from their mouths? How… Does chewing on a book count as reading, and how do you think about this stage? 

Sami: So, I would definitely offer some sensory books with different fabrics and those crinkly sounds for them to manipulate. And hand your baby a teething ring or a small wooden toy while you’re reading. That’s perfectly fine. And then when they get to be about six months old and those teeth are really coming in, I would of course offer them a teether, “You may chew on this book, books are for reading”, but if they’re just not having it, try offering a special teether or a teething treat only when you’re reading. So they have these mesh holders where you can stick frozen fruit in them, and my daughter goes absolutely crazy for them when her teeth are really, really coming in. She’s about nine months old right now, so we’re in the thick of it.

How to deal with short attention spans

Jessica: And then what about the age when they just really want to squirm off your lap. They’re just starting to get on the move, like 9-10 months, up to a year and more, when they just don’t seem to want to sit still and read. What kind of tips do you have? 

Sami: Sure. Well, that’s perfectly normal. They have short attention spans, they’ve got their own interests, and sometimes they just aren’t in the mood. So I would invite them to turn the pages with you and try and interact with the book a lot. You can vary the pitch of the words, you could try slowly singing them, just making it really fun, adding some of those animal sounds, movements. Like when I’m reading Little Blue Track with my daughter, I’ll bounce her gently on my knee, “Bump, bump, bump”. I’ve got a lot of examples of this over on my Instagram, but trying to pull them into the story a lot more.

If they are swimming away, I would not chase after them. I wouldn’t make it seem like it’s this chore on your to-do list or turn it into a stressful battle. They could end up enjoying that attention and then it would totally backfire. So a few things that you can try are just calmly keep reading, they’re probably still listening and they’ll see that this book must be really important to mom, and so they’re likely going to come back and give it another try in a few seconds.

Another thing that you could try is to just wait and observe. When they turn and look at you, then say, “Oh would you like to bring that over while I’m reading? And then invite them to play with that toy quietly while you’re reading. Research shows that some kids actually comprehend a lot more when they’re able to fidget and move their bodies. And then another suggestion is to check the time that you’re reading. So if they’re really active they may just need to get some energy out.

When working with kids we always think about that theory of contraction and expansion, and so when we want them to contract and come together, engage calmly sitting with us to read, we have to make sure that we first let them expand and give their minds and bodies this room to roam and play freely. And get all that energy out. And so we’ll have a lot more luck when we provide time and space for those exercises.

Learning how to turn pages

Jessica: That’s such good practical advice, I’m loving this. So, tell me about when babies can… You mentioned engaging them by having them turn the pages, do you have any tips about helping a child learn how to turn the pages or when this happens, developmentally? 

Sami: Sure, so about nine to 12 months babies are going to develop the dexterity to open up a board book and turn the pages on their own. But this could even happen a little bit earlier, as long as you’re there helping them, kinda getting the page started. So we want to model it really slowly. And then, of course, describe what’s happening, “Wow, you’re turning the page with me!”, and they’re probably going to practice it back and forth, back and forth, and that’s fine, just follow their lead. “You’re turning the pages!” Once they’ve mastered this skill, sometimes parents can get a little frustrated. I get a lot of messages, [chuckle] “What do I do when my kid’s moving them so quickly. I can’t even read the words on this page”. And that’s completely normal. Remember, they don’t understand that the word you’re reading are associated to a particular page.

So there are few things you can do here, you could ask them a question and try and redirect, “Let’s find the bunny”, to get back to the page that you want. You could reteach this skill, just model and pause, so that then they’re practicing that waiting time. You could offer a silly signal, like kiss their head or their nose or even make a little beep sound, and then that’s a signal that they get to turn the page. And you can also just ignore it, and continue reading the best you can, sometimes even making up some of the words if that happens [chuckle] It will pass, it’s a stage. My daughter went through this one where she wanted to hold her own book and turn the pages while I was reading to her. And that’s fine too.

Rubber band trick

Jessica: And I’ve seen on your Instagram, there’s a post with adding rubber bands to the pages. So can you tell me about how that helps? 

Sami: Sure, so if you take scrunchies or rubber bands and wrap them around the spine of the book so they’re in between the pages, it props the pages open so that a younger child can easily grab and manipulate that book. And that’s really wonderful for helping a child explore books when they are enjoying some independent play. I always recommend leaving some books out for children, about three to four. Any more than that and it could be a little overwhelming. But when we keep books out and open then they can enjoy and imitate what they’re seeing from us, which is really important for their development.

Read throughout the day

Jessica: We always think about reading at bedtime. Are there other ways that you can make reading a part of the child’s daily routine? Or how do you add reading to different times of the day, other than just bedtime? 

Sami: That’s a great question, we read in little chunks throughout the day. Sometimes days are better than others, but I really try not to stress over it. I leave books all over my house, so they’re in these tiny baskets and if we have a minute then we reach for it. It’s a visual reminder for me, but it also creates this family culture that we value reading, which is really important for kids to see. I leave books out as those visual triggers, so I’ll have a devotional on our kitchen table and we’ll try and read a little page during breakfast time. I read when my girls are playing in the tub, I always have a book in my diaper bag, in the car, and we read before nap time, after nap time. Any time we can make it a predictable routine we’re going to have a lot less of the fight.

And I also find that books are helpful with transitions. So anytime we need a reset, the day is just not going our way, or one of us is in a funky mood, I reach for a book. It’s so great. And then also, an important thing I want to note is that we want to make sure that our partner and their dad is also reading, so there are studies that find that fathers only read about 15% of the time, where mothers are reading about 76%, and then other caregivers or teachers are reading about 9%. And so we want to even this out a little bit more and make sure that fathers are part of the reading experience as well. So when dad gets home maybe that can be a new routine that we work in, where one of the first things he does when he gets home from work to reconnect is to read a book.

Make reading interactive and entertaining

Jessica: And I found that my husband is particularly good at dramatizing in when he’s reading our children’s books. Can you talk about how important it is that we use this kind of dramatic animated voice when we’re reading to our kids? 

Sami: Yes. It’s so funny, I think dads just really… They don’t care what other people are thinking and they get so much fun and they just make the stories come alive, and we can learn a lot from that. We want to pull kids in and entertain them, make it interactive. If you think about the difference between a really boring meeting where the presenter’s just reading everything off of a slide, and compare that to another meeting where they’re making the content come alive and feel really relatable, we want that approach. So how can we make it casual and fun and interesting, and play off of the things in the story and point to pictures, and…

I really like rhyming books for this reason, because they have so much rhythm built in, it’s a lot easier for us. Babies are naturally more attuned to that “parentese” or that infant-directed speech. And it’s helpful when we try and use those same guidelines when we’re reading. So adding some enthusiasm, exaggerating, maybe elongation some of the words. Not every sentence needs to feel like a performance, but we want there to be personality to it so it feels like a fun book club instead of a quiz or school.

Build literacy early on

Jessica: I also was so fascinated to read that the parents’ tendency to use repetitive language at seven months predicted a child’s vocabulary at 12 months. There was a study that you referenced in… That was research on your Instagram, can you talk about this research and any other tips that you have as a parent for how to build literacy early on

Sami: Sure. So, language and vocabulary are these key components of early literacy, and a lot of what I share is about how we can develop those language skills. And we found from these studies that the quality and the quantity of words that baby hear determine their vocabulary at age 2. And parents who are going to use infant-directed speech, the parentese, the high-pitched sounds and enthusiasm that we use when we’re talking with a really cute baby, we tend to repeat our words, which gives babies extra opportunities to listen and to learn. And so those are going to develop these really important speech skills.

Some other things that we can do to develop greater vocabulary and that, is to narrate our day. So explaining, “Okay, we’re going to change your diaper right now. This wipe might feel a little cool. Ooh, do you feel that?” And just talking with our child. When we’re at the grocery store, explaining what we’re putting in the cart, even though that might seem a little bit silly to people we’re walking by. While we’re chopping vegetables, talking to our child about it, just making them part of our day, inviting them to participate with us. They are these little sponges. Another thing you can do that’s really easy is to walk around your room and describe some objects you see. You can use the real name of things. So instead of saying “Baba”, you would say “bottle”. Another one…

Another one is to keep the TV off. Even background TV can have negative effects on language development. We know that research tells us face-to-face interactions are going to be the most beneficial for children. So, sometimes having those conversations with them, leaning in, leaving space for them to respond, that’s huge for language development.

Emphasize sounds

Jessica: For some of the parents that have a little bit older children at home, like preschoolers or your three-year-old, there’s so much emphasis on letters. We often go there right away, even with babies, singing the ABCs and helping them know their letters. Can you talk about why learning letter sounds is actually more important than us being able to recite the ABCs? 

Sami: Sure. So I really want parents to know that they do not have to emphasize the academics, especially at an early age, we want to instead build this framework where reading is just the most enjoyable thing, where we get to connect together. We know that there are just as many emotional benefits to reading as there are cognitive benefits. So ways that we can help our babies understand and recognize sounds, we’re going to articulate words slowly, with enthusiasm, and energy. You know, the typical parentese style, where we are so excited to talk to our babies we’re talking to them at kind of a higher pitch and exaggerating, like “Olivia, good morning, sweet girl. It’s so good to see you. Did you have good dreams?” And so we kind of just draw things out, we’re very happy to talk to our children. And that helps them understand the space between words and understand those sounds.

Some other things that we can do instead of focusing on letter sounds and the alphabet or big academics is to just invite them to explore different sounds, like maybe laying out a basket where there are different toys that make sounds and shaking them and banging them and acknowledging, “You’re making new sounds! Wow, I hear that! I wonder what else makes noise”. Another thing we can do is use repetitive language. So, again, focusing on building those language skills rather than the academics at this age. Every time I pick my daughter up I’m telling her, “Up!” And when it’s time to eat, I sign and I say “milk”.

And you can even describe what you hear, just creating that language. “Oh, do you hear that? Riley is barking. That’s so loud. Woof, woof, woof”. And giving them an opportunity to see if they want to respond or babel back. Sometimes it can even take babies 10 seconds to process what we are saying. So really creating a lot of space and, of course, reading daily. That’s going to help develop these early sound skills so that then when they are older and we’re ready to focus on some of the academics and teach letter sounds, we have a really strong foundation and its a very easy natural developmentally appropriate process that doesn’t stress anybody out.

Incorporate sign language

Jessica: I love that advice. It’s just… It’s calming and it feels very doable. I’m also excited that you brought up sign language, ’cause I hadn’t thought about asking about that, but I really want to now. So tell me, have you incorporated sign language into your children’s lives? And tell me about the why and the benefits and how.

Sami: Absolutely. It has been so amazing in helping my daughters communicate with me in an early age, and it’s been shown also that when children can communicate they have far less tantrums, because they’re able to, of course, get their needs across. So we’ve taught a lot of the basics around meal time, like “milk, please, more, thank you, drink, all done”. And we’ve just done that with repetition. And we know that by using sign language we’re repeating the words very often, which actually helps build their vocabulary. So, contrary to popular belief, encouraging sign language actually increases cognitive skills and language skills.

Jessica: It’s so fun to hear, and it is doable. It is doable. So you don’t have to have 20 signs that you use, you can just use a handful and it can make a difference.

Sami: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

Jessica: It’s been so wonderful having you here with us, Sami. Thank you so much for being with us.

Sami: Thank you, I really appreciate this.

Episode takeaways

That was so inspiring and reassuring. Let’s go through the takeaways. 

Let them see your face

Try propping your baby against your legs while you are reading to them, so they can see your face. When babies are born they can only see about 10 inches away and will be much more engaged if they can see your facial expressions as you read! 

Use silly voices

Remember to use lots of intonation and silly voices to engage your baby and bring the story to life. 

Expose your baby to sounds

Rather than focusing on ABCs at an early age, expose your baby to lots of sounds. Use repetitive language, articulating words slowly and with enthusiasm. “Up!” “Milk” “The dog is barking: Woof woof.” That helps them understand the space between words and to start recognizing sounds.

Learn more at Lovevery’s blog, “Here With You.”


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Kate Garlinge

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Posted in: 0 - 12 Months, Language, Books, Child Development

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