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Reading to babies and toddlers

Looking through picture books helps children figure out their everyday world and prepares them for focusing on the more complex symbols of language

The international children’s agency Unicef has a wonderful video about why it’s important to read to your baby. The multilingual (with subtitles on unicef.org #EarlyMomentsMatter) clips showing joyous babies and toddlers flicking through books and listening to stories being read aloud to them is an excellent advertisement for reading to young children.

“Children need stories. It gives them meaning, comfort and love,” the narrators of the Unicef video say. Looking through picture books helps children figure out their everyday world and prepares them for focusing on the more complex symbols of language.

“It’s really important when reading to young children not to force them to listen and look at every page but to look at the book the way they want to look at it. Even the physicality of turning the page builds their fine motor skills,” says Caroline Sullivan, owner of Tales for Tadpoles children’s bookshop in Dublin and mother of two young children.

Veteran child psychologist and parenting guru Dr Penelope Leach writes in her book Baby & Child that young children need at least three kinds of books – picture books, the content of which can be talked about and elaborated on, and highly illustrated books through which they can follow the story and study the highlights of the plot of the story being read aloud to them. Dr Leach also says that babies and toddlers benefit from seeing adults and older children reading for pleasure too.


“Being read to is a lasting pleasure for every child. Take it slowly. Teach yourself to adapt difficult words or put in explanations as you go. Show the pictures and encourage talk about what is happening,” she writes.

Sullivan adds that bright colours, striking illustrations and repetition are all very important for young children. “I didn’t realise how important nursery rhymes were until I had my own children. And children love repeating them and making up their own silly little rhymes,” she says.

Researchers have found that book reading has a beneficial effect on the development of vocabulary. One study led by Dr Sinead McNally from the School of Language, Literacy & Early Childhood Education at Dublin City University discovered that reading to nine-month old babies significantly improves their expressive vocabulary skills by the time they are three years old.

Dr McNally says “there is a tacit assumption held by many parents and caregivers that reading to children should only begin when children start producing language. Our findings indicate that reading to children and babies supports children’s oral language skills in the preschool years, skills which we know are very important for children’s later reading and school readiness.”

The study also found that one in five children are not read to in infancy and recommended that family literacy intervention programmes should reach out to families where babies and toddlers are not read to.

Arts writer Sara Keating facilitated baby book clubs in public libraries in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council for about four years before the Covid pandemic. The sessions began with a classic picture book (eg The Hungry Caterpillar, Owl Babies, One Ted Falls Out of Bed) being read aloud. This was followed by a few theme-related songs and a short simple craft activity which reinforces themes and vocabulary from the stories. The 30-minute sessions concluded with the reading of another complementary story that children and parents may not have come across before.

Keating, who brought along her own young child to the sessions, says that since babies first experience books with their fingers and mouths, board books and cloth books (and bath books) are a good place to start.

“Read every day and often. Look for books with clear illustrations, bold colours or real life pictures. Books with noises, textures and mirrors also encourage interaction and animal books are a surefire hit and provide plenty of opportunity to make your own noises,” says Keating.

When reading to children it’s important to make it fun by exaggerating your expressions and tone where appropriate, remembering all the time that for babies and toddlers play and learning is all part of the same experience. Sullivan says that the Chris Haughton books (eg Good Night Everyone, Shh We Have A Plan), the Shirley Hughes Alfie books and the Bustletown books by Rotraut Susanne Berner are among the favourites of customers at Tales for Tadpoles. The collection of nursery rhymes, Read to Your Baby Every Day is a popular baby present.

Setting screen time limits for young children

More than one-third of parents with a child under 12 say their child began interacting with a smart phone before the age of five, according to Pew Research Center in the United States. The same study found that over one-third of parents (35 per cent) said that their babies/toddlers up to two years of age had access to a tablet computer, and 50 per cent of parents said children in the same age group (up to age two) had access to a smart phone. Almost two-thirds of parents said their three- to four-year-olds had access to a tablet and smart phone.

This use of digital devices among younger children has also grown in Ireland – especially during the pandemic lockdowns when children adapted to schooling at home using screen devices. Yet many studies continue to point out that when children spend a lot of time on digital devices (tablets, smart phones and even smart televisions) they are more prone to sleep problems and obesity. The big question is how much time is too much and what age should children be first given access to digital devices?

The Health Service Executive (HSE) publishes clear guidelines about screen time limits for children which starts by saying that parents and caregivers should avoid giving babies up to the age of 18 months access to digital devices – with the exception of showing them photographs and allowing them partake in video calls.

Parenting experts also recommend that children aged between 18-24 months should spend as little time as possible in front of a screen, and two- to five-year-olds should spend no more than one hour a day on screens.

Research has shown that children who spend a lot of time watching television or videos on tablets are more likely to have poorer language and cognitive skills. The core issue is when screen time replaces other activities such as active play with other children, interactive time with their parents or caregivers or even sleep.

In a world when adults – as well as children – are welded to their smart phones and tablets it’s hard to know how to curb such access for young children. However, experts agree that the tops tips to limiting screen time for young children include giving them a toy instead of a digital device to play with, and if they are on a screen choosing carefully what a young child watches and sitting with your child when they are playing a game or watching a programme.

Talk to them about what they are doing or watching and how it relates to the world around them. And establish a few house rules such as not allowing digital devises in bedrooms or during mealtimes, and, most importantly, leading by example on all of the above.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment