Parents-to-be often ask me: “When should I start reading to my baby?”

And my answer is always: “As soon as you bring them home from the hospital.”

The truth is that it’s never too early to start reading to your baby. The bonding that happens when you’re reading to your baby is priceless. And it’s super important for brain and language development in children.

Reading to babies and brain development: Here’s the scoop

Babies are born ready to learn. Reading is an activity that encourages infants to use their senses to explore the world. What does Mom smell like? What does the book feel like? What’s that blurry shape in front of my eyes? What are those funny sounds that Dad is making?

Even if your baby doesn’t understand the words you’re saying, the process of reading engages all their senses. So, it’s no wonder that reading to babies early and often stimulates brain development and actually helps their brain grow!

Reading is good for childhood development in so many ways – helping a baby develop communication skills, form listening skills, build a vocabulary and test their memory. Plus, books introduce your child to the world they live in and concepts such as numbers, colors, letters and shapes.

Reading to your baby also helps with language development. During the first year, babies will hear all the sounds they need to speak their native language. So, the more books they read during their first year, the better they will be able to talk.

What are the best books for newborns?

The weeks after your baby is born will be a whirlwind of feeding and diapers, so take time during your pregnancy to start collecting books to read to your newborn.

But, when it comes to which books to read to newborn babies, what exactly should you be looking for?

1. Black-and-white baby books

Early on, the best books for newborns are those with black-and-white illustrations. According to research, these types of images send the strongest visual signals to your baby’s brain. Also, try to keep the book within 8 to 12 inches from your baby’s face. That’s all the farther a newborn can clearly see.

This is because the back layer of your baby’s eye (the retina) that detects light isn’t fully developed at birth. A newborn’s retina can only see big contrasts between light and dark. That means books with light pastel illustrations aren’t ideal early on.

Your baby’s sense of sight will gradually get stronger over the six to eight months after birth. What’s really developing is your child’s brain and its ability to process all the visual information they’re taking in. As your baby starts seeing, touching, smelling, hearing and tasting more, nerve cells in the brain multiply and connect. So, it’s important to be intentional about stimulating your baby’s brain with sensory input.

Recommended black-and-white newborn baby books

  • Baby Animals Black and White” by Phyllis Limbacher Tildes: The team at HealthPartners and Park Nicollet clinics love this children’s book so much that we give a copy to all of our expecting parents. It doesn’t have any words, so parents can simply tell a story about the pictures, regardless of the language they speak.
  • Look, Look!” By Peter Linenthal: Babies love this book’s high-contrast images. Each image is accompanied by a few words in a curving red line that describe the action depicted on the page, making it a good choice as babies move beyond their first few months. For example, a page with a car notes that “a car races”, and the page with a cat says “a cat stretches”.
  • Koala Flip Book” by Taf Toys Store: This flip book encourages tummy time by giving your baby an entertaining black-and-white image to look at while lying on their stomach. To extend the use of the book, color versions of each of the images are included for older children.

2. Books that babies can chew

As any parent will tell you, there comes a time when your baby starts putting everything in their mouth. When it comes to books, this is how babies “read”.

It’s developmentally appropriate for babies as young as three months to chew on books. Their attention spans are short. While bold illustrations can help, you shouldn’t expect a young infant to concentrate on even the best baby books for longer than about 90 seconds. At least, not if your baby isn’t chewing on them.

When it comes to choosing books to read to newborn babies, picking something you wouldn’t be heartbroken to see get destroyed is important. Chewing helps babies strengthen their tongues, which is important for their speech development. But if baby is going through board books faster than diapers, there are also some more durable options.

Options for chewable newborn baby books

  • Mother Goose Deluxe My First Library 12 Board Book Block” by PI Kids: This set includes 12 tiny board books that are the perfect size for babies to look at and chew on. While you can’t go wrong with Mother Goose, there are many versions of these 12-book libraries available from PI Kids. If you’re a Disney family, there’s a set with Mickey Mouse and friends. If your crew leans more toward Sesame Street, that’s an option, too.
  • Things That Go!” (Indestructibles Series) by Amy Pixton: This book highlights different forms of transportation that baby may see on the road, in the air or at sea. The illustrations are bright and the story is fun. But the real value is the nature of the book itself. All books in the indestructible series are chew proof, rip proof, nontoxic and washable – and some are available in Spanish.
  • Let’s Count Soft Book – World of Eric Carle”: Your child can learn to count to five with this soft book featuring the Very Hungry Caterpillar. The book uses many interactive elements to keep your baby engaged, including crinkle pages, a squeaker, various textures and flaps, and a corner specifically designed for teething.

3. Interactive books to spark brain development

When enjoying a book with your baby, make the story come alive by changing the tone of your voice or using sound effects and motions. Point out pictures that match your words and elaborate. Have conversations about the numbers, letters, colors, shapes, objects and characters that show up in the book. Find books about your culture and explain why your family heritage matters. All of this keeps the book exciting for your child and helps hold their attention.

During story time, having fun and interacting with baby are just as important as the letters on the page. That’s why being able to read isn’t necessary for sharing a good book with baby. So, encourage big brothers and sisters to tell stories about pictures and books, even if they are still learning their ABCs.

This is important too: if you think a book is annoying, don’t read it to your baby. You must be engaged to effectively nurture your baby’s brain development. And that means the best baby books are the ones that you like and that encourage you to be interactive.

Ideas for interactive books for infants

  • My First 101 WORDS” by Simon Abbott: This book shows 101 words with photographs to help kids connect a word with an image. More than that, it gives you the opportunity to provide more details and tell a story about how each item fits into baby’s life.
  • Global Babies” by the Global Fund for Children: This book includes 17 photographs of infants and offers a glimpse into the daily life, traditions and clothing from around the world. Babies like to look at other babies and this book provides an opportunity to talk about the beautiful babies from other countries. The bilingual text is included in both English and Spanish.
  • Books you liked as a child: were you gaga over “Goodnight Moon” as a baby? Did you love “Corduroy” the bear? Many classic children’s books are now available as board books. Even if your childhood favorites are no longer in print, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find a used copy online. But if your baby is still in the chewing stage, make sure to keep vintage and used books out of their hands (and mouths).

4. Books with rhyming words and songs to make it fun to learn new sounds

By the time your baby turns one, they will have learned all the sounds needed to speak a language. Reinforce these sounds and how to use them by reading books with rhymes.

Rhyme showcases the common inflections we use while speaking. So, reading rhyming books will help prepare your baby’s ear, voice and brain for language, which is a key part of a baby’s brain development.

You can point out which words rhyme and emphasize that they do. This will give your child a chance to hear and fully process different sounds. The repetitive sound of a rhyme can also help teach your child to predict what comes next, which can build their memory skills.

Reading your newborn baby rhymes doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be an early talker. However, when starting to talk, it’s more likely your child will be able to string together words.

Clinical evidence shows that by the time your child starts kindergarten, their brain will have grown to 90% of its adult size. Maximize brain growth and your baby’s brain development by starting to read to them right away.

Story time is a great way to maximize the amount of snuggle time you have with your baby. And when you’re wondering how to get baby to sleep, a calming, rhyming story can be a really good option.

Great rhyming books to read to infants

  • Peek-a-Who” by Nina Laden: This board book is filled with colorful images and simple rhymes, and is the perfect size for your baby’s little hands. Plus, the cutouts in the pages and the mirrored surface at the end will fascinate baby for hours at a time. It is also available as a bilingual book in Chinese and English.
  • Llama Llama Red Pajama” by Anna Dewdney: Filled with great rhymes and fun images, this board book is a wonderful choice for bedtime or any time. Also available in other languages, including Spanish and bilingual in English and Chinese.
  • Moo, Baa, La La La!” by Sandra Boynton: This book is super engaging, especially for older babies who like to read along with all the animal sounds, including those provided by the silly singing pigs who say “La la la”. It’s also available in Spanish.

Raising a reader

A baby can never have too many books. The above recommendations are just a few to consider for your new baby’s library. There are so many good choices out there. Ask friends and relatives for recommendations – they may even be able to remind you of a book that you loved as a baby!

Of course, the costs of baby books can add up, so don’t hesitate to ask people with older children if they have books that their kiddos have outgrown – just be sure they are clean before offering them to your baby.

There are also quite a few organizations that offer free books for babies. Depending on where you live, some options may be The Free Book Buggie, Imagination Library or the Network for the Development of Children of African Decent (NdCAD).

Reading is just one of the wonderful things you can do to support your baby’s brain and language development. To learn more about the importance of reading and other brain-boosting activities, visit the Little Moments Count website. This site is filled with tips and resources to help encourage healthy childhood development.

If you have any concerns about your baby’s development, talk to your child’s doctor.