Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to Get Started with the Littlest Learner: Some Book Recommendations and Tips for Reading with Newborns

Bringing that new baby home from the hospital is a very exciting time for a family. You have likely spent hours decorating his or her room in the perfect shade of pastel pink or blue, read about "what to expect", hired a professional photographer to capture his or her milestones on film forever more, and even taken some kind of "preparation" course such as a breast feeding, CPR, or a parenting class.  But, how much time did you spend organizing a home library for your newborn?  Think a newborn doesn't need a home library?  Think again! 

While many parents give ample attention to their newborn's sleep, feeding, and pooping schedule (all of which ARE very important), few give a second thought to their newborn's thinking and learning; and it's just as important.  Why?  Because early experiences matter. 

Did you know?
  • A newborn comes into the world with virtually as many neurons as he will ever have; the interconnections between neurons increase at a phenomenal rate early in life based on the experiences your infant has.  The more stimulation and sensory input your child receives, the stronger those connections will become.
  • Your child's vocabulary at a year and half is largely influenced by how much you have spoken to him in his first year of life.  Parents who speak to their infants more, have toddlers who know more words!
  • Parents who believe that their newborns are more capable of learning, actually have one year olds who have learned more.
  • From the moment your child is born, his environment begins to shape his brain in a way that will have important implications for his future.  Growing up in an impoverished learning environment that lacks proper stimulation from play, language, affection, and one-to-one bonding can actually hinder a child's brain development.
  • Connections in the brain that are not stimulated by experience will eventually be lost; some connections in the brain that are not stimulated during a critical period of time may never develop normally. 
So, to reiterate: Early experiences matter and CAN make a difference in your child's life.  Now, you don't need to be your child's own intellectual drill sergeant, enlist in any crazy baby genius programs, or give him a pop quiz at the end of the week in order to create meaningful early experiences!  In fact, one of the easiest and rewarding things that you can do to help stimulate your new baby's brain is very simple.  Reading.  It can not only be a can be a great source of pleasure for the both of you (think of all that bonding and cuddling time) but a great learning experience. 

Reading to a newborn is a little different than reading to a 3-year old, though!  And many parents probably don't know where to begin, so here's some general things to consider when reading to a newborn:

  1. A newborn's visual acuity is quite poor.  In fact, a newborn would be considered legally blind.  So you'll want to hold a book fairly close to your bundle of joy, ideally 8 to 12 inches away. Over the course of the first few months, visual acuity improves. 
  2. Be sensitive to your newborn's cues.  If he starts to cry, that may mean that he's not into story time, even though you are.  If he looks away, it may be a cue that he's being overstimulated.  Don't "force" your child to listen to stories if it's sleeping he'd rather be doing!  Try to understand his needs and respond effectively.
  3. Consider buying cloth books or "board" books (which are books made of sturdier material). Books that you begin reading early in your child's life will undoubtedly become some of his favorites that you will be reading over and over (possibly more than you could have ever dreamed of), and they will need to last awhile.  Plus, once he learns how to reach for books and handle them on his own, they will become his favorite snack. 
Looking for some great first book recommendations?  You're in luck.  Here's a few that would work perfectly for the littlest of little learners.

Tana Hoban has some wonderful baby books that work well for newborns. Since newborns have such poor visual acuity, they love to look at high contrast pictures.  And since it's believed that an infant's color perception isn't fully developed until 3 - 4 months of age, black and white pictures are perfect.  Check out all of her books, but these ones are particularly great and they are sold in a set of 6:

Another good book with high contrast black and white pictures, plus a little art appreciation lesson thrown in, is Art for Baby:

Newborns are also naturally drawn to social stimuli such as faces. Some pretty amazing research has shown that even newborns who are a few hours old prefer to look at face-like stimuli! Board books with close up pictures of faces will delight your child. There is no shortage of "baby faces" books, so you will have your pick, but here's one as an example.

Very young infants tend to spend more time looking at people's hairlines, but by 2 months they gaze more at the internal features of a face such as the eyes.  And by 3 months an infant can even recognize photos of his mother!  Try some of these fun photo books with your newborn:

Sassy Look Photo Book by Sassy

Baby's My First Photo Album of Family & Friends by Genius Baby Toys

Baby's First Photo Album/Activity Book by One Step Ahead

Newborns are quite communicative and are born with an inherent ability to respond to human speech.  For example, you may notice your little one turns his head to look at you when you speak, smiles when spoken to, or even prefers to hear your voice over others. A newborn can actually discriminate between many of the sounds used in speech.  Your newborn's first "speech-like" sounds will probably occur between 1 and 3 months and will likely sound like "ooo" or "goo goo".  Even though your child is only a few months, or even weeks old, he is already working hard learning about language and communication.  In fact, language is learned through a back and forth process of interaction with adults (not by sitting in front of a TV).  Try to read books to your newborn that stimulate "conversation" between the two of you.  By responding to your child in a turn-taking manner, as if you are holding a conversation, your child's vocalizations are likely to become even more speech-like.  Here's an example from the book Butterfly Kisses by Sandra Magsamen, who has a wonderful collection of books for newborns. 

Mommy: oooh, butterfly kisses - let me kiss you on the nose! (Kisses)

Baby: giggles

Mommy: oh you think that's funny do you....let's see what the book says.  Oh, a picture of bees it says bees buzz along....birds sing a love la la.

Baby: smile.  (kicks legs happily)

Mommy: Wow, what a good little kick...Turtles play peek-a-boo (hides eyes and uncovers them).

Baby: smile.  ooooo, aaaa 

Mommy: Are you trying to say boo?  Boo!

Baby: ooooo.  ababbbaaa.  gooo.

Mommy: oh, I see....yes, that's right.  That's what a baby says "goo" "goo".  Let's see what else this book says.

Sandra Boynton also has a great collection of books for infants; Moo Baa La La La would be a great conversational piece for a newborn.

Reading with your newborn also provides the both of you with a wonderful bonding experience, and forming emotional attachments early in life is an essential piece of the learning process; emotion and learning are closely linked and children who feel loved develop a sense of security that is often necessary for early learning to take place. By showing your child love and being responsive to his needs, he will likely feel a sense of pleasure which encourages him interact with you again.  So, snuggle up.  Here are some books that encourage love and bonding with your newborn.

Enjoy!  The newborn phase doesn't last very long....

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