By Dr Melodie de Jager
Babies read, but not books. They read faces. They read behaviour. They read their environment. They are masters at harnessing their mirror neurons to reflect what they’ve ‘read’. Their natural reading ability is about things that are real, not flat on a page.
It is around 8 months that a baby’s vision and brain have matured enough to ‘read’ who is familiar, and who is a stranger. This is a huge milestone in visual development, baby is developing visual perception – discrimination (telling apart), analysis (taking apart) and synthesis (putting together). These are products of baby’s emerging executive function of the brain. But note, baby spontaneously reads what is REAL (tangible). Books are real, but pictures aren’t real (intangible). Tablets and phones are real (tangible), but images on them aren’t real (intangible).
Optometrists will tell you it takes the eyes more or less seven years to mature to read with ease. They will also tell you if babies and children spend more time with pictures and images than crawling, climbing, running, catching, kicking and hugging, they tend to develop myopia (nearsightedness) and lose the love of reading even before it starts.
Reading isn’t natural, it is an acquired skill that starts when someone who can read, spends time with a baby or toddler to share joy and give meaning to squiggles on paper or screen. Squiggles represent sounds. Unraveling which squiggle represents which sound or sounds takes nearly nine years. Think of an a, one squiggle but it represents many sounds. The ‘ay’ in baby, the ‘ah’ zebra, the ‘o’ in swan. Letters and words are abstract concepts and only those children who have cultivated a love of reading, learn to read with joy.
Reading to your baby is a marvelous shared activity that helps to calm them down, and that’s why most stories are read in the evening around bedtime. Your baby may not understand a word, or recognise a single picture, but your baby or toddler will revel in your closeness and undivided attention. Your baby will clap hands when they see you with a book, and your toddler will fetch a book, because the book is a wonderful relationship anchor between the three of you – the littlie, you and the book.
Children who are read to during their early years are more likely to learn to read at an appropriate age.
Albert Einstein was asked ‘how can I make sure my child is intelligent?’ His answer: read stories to your child. ‘And if I want my child to be really clever?’ Read more stories to your child.
Language is the tool of thought. Without language it is difficult to think and often one of the reasons why children bite – they bite because they battle to express themselves. But then we need to read age appropriate books. Books that create curiosity not fuel frustration.
For a baby of this age ‘reading’ means pointing and naming people and objects. It also involves creating your own ‘books’ with pictures of family members, animals and objects they love. What about creating folders on your phone? It is a good ‘second best option’ when travelling or waiting in a reception area, but not as part of a calming routine just before bedtime.
Make sure stories are age-appropriate and that the book has lively, colourful pictures without too much detail. You will be reading the same story many times; approach the story from a fresh angle and be original!
Reading to your baby creates an opportunity to develop: vocabulary, imagination, and reasoning ability. It is a fun bonding activity that also contributes to a restful night’s sleep because baby feels loved and cherished. Reading together over time develops a love of books, and learning!