With any parenting issue - particularly those involving young children and toddlers - there are always strongly conflicting opinions and drastically varying schools of thought. From the hundreds of different styles of response to a crying child parents are advised to follow, to the continuous debate over when exactly a mother should stop breastfeeding - or even whether she should stop at all - parenting can be a thorny business. However, when one raises the questions of how early parents should begin reading to their children, the answer it simple and almost entirely unanimous: as early as is possible.
In fact, many experts would advise parents to begin reading to their children even before they are born. Just as many parents sing to their children while they are still in the womb, many studies seem to suggest that reading to the unborn child can have a similar effect: while the unborn child is, of course, unable to understand the words, concentrated exposure to the voice of the mother - and the father - can have a calming effect on the baby, thus creating a link between the parent and child prior to birth which will be further comforting to the child once they are born.
As with singing to a very young, or unborn, child, the act of reading forces the voice to follow a regular rhythm and pitch patten that can be hugely comforting for the child. As the child grows and becomes more able to comprehend the words spoken, reading to your child becomes even more important; recent research by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln indicates that generally, the younger the age at which a child's parents begin to read to him or her, the faster that child will develop the cognitive skills, ability to make links and essential vocabulary necessary for them to be able to speak - and even read - themselves.
Of course, that's not to say parents ought to start reciting Shakespeare to one-year-old children! As with anything, it is just as important to choose age appropriate reading material as it is to read at all. For the first twelve months of your baby's life, it is unlikely that the child will make any real connection between the spoken and written word. During this period, the child is more likely to enjoy board books with lots of bright colours, different textures, pictures and labels: the first year is a time of rapid change and growth for each one of the child's senses and it is important to stimulate them all.
It is also at this age that the child will begin to associate books with the feeling of love, attention and security that reading to your child can create, a feeling which is essentially for later stages of reading. Between the ages of 1 and 2, as the child learns to talk, they will begin to 'collect' different sound groups and phonics; books with lots of repetition and rhyming are therefore appropriate. From the age of 2, your child should become more able to comprehend and appreciate more text and simple story-lines. As with any aspect of parenting, your child will almost always show for themselves what they enjoy and when they are ready to move on.
Here's a list, compiled by the Book Trust, of the best 25 early reading books for babies and toddlers. Many have stood the test of time and I find that my 3 year old granddaughter loves the same books I read to her mother. Styles and fashions may change but a good, entertaining story remains a constant.
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