It’s never too early . . .
Shannon Cullen is a publishing director for children's books. She has a new baby as well as a toddler. Originally from New Zealand, Shannon now lives in London with her family. She is the author of I'm Wrecked, This is My Journal: The Alternative Baby Book for Frazzled Parents. Below, Shannon talks about the joys of sharing books with babies and selects 10 of her favourites.
You may think that once you have a child, the early weeks of tiredness mean that reading a book just won’t be top of your parenting agenda. And that’s probably true – for you at least. As a lifelong bookworm, I actually had lofty plans for my first maternity leave. However, all my ambitions to get through my ‘to be read’ pile were very quickly revised when I realised that reading was the fastest way to make me drift off. Not ideal when you’re responsible for a small person. But thankfully your baby has other ideas. It’s simply never too early to start introducing books to a child.
Babies respond to contrasting black and white in the earliest weeks, and are fascinated by shapes and patterns. Both of my children stared at their first books almost as adoringly as at me and my husband . . . Some black and white baby books have lovely soft, crinkly pages, which are great for stimulating other senses too, and remove the worry of hard cardboard scratching baby skin, especially when everything starts to go in their mouth. Gradually a baby can start to discern colours and then a whole world of entertainment opens up, and books with textured pages mean they can hit and rub their hands over the pages. They’ll be fascinated by the pages turning too, revealing another bright picture, a flap to lift or a button to press and make a sound.
But what about reading aloud to your baby – when to start? How soon before you’re able to recite the words to Dr Seuss or We’re Going on a Bear Hunt without even looking? The answer is: as soon as possible too! Even though they don’t yet understand the words, listening to language will help a baby’s speech development. At the very least they will recognize a familiar voice and be comforted by the lyrical tones as you read to them. You can even use audio books in the car.
Until I had a baby I never appreciated quite how hard it is to write a good picture book. But having read hundreds now – and many of them repeatedly – you soon learn why classics (longstanding or modern) are classics. Some of our favourite books are the ones that rhyme, as there is something very soothing about the bouncing word play. But the greatest books are fun for both parents and children, and a bookseller will be able to recommend something that’s perfect for you. It’s especially satisfying to discover a new author and illustrator, or a book that helps with your baby’s next development stage.
The bedtime story routine can start as early as you want it to as well. A baby will love being cuddled up to you, and it’s great bonding time. (Best to pick a moment in the evening when both you and they are the least frazzled, though!) And don’t forget that pictures are part of the reading experience too. They stimulate questions for older children, but also allow you to extend the story by pointing out things like little ladybirds or stars on the page to even the smallest child.
Books allow you and your child to learn together as well as laugh out loud – shapes, colours, numbers, nursery rhymes and then moving on to favourite characters or themes. The earlier a child becomes familiar with books, the more fun you can both have with them. It’s not recommended that babies have any screen time, so books are the perfect tried and tested form of entertainment. And once you start, don’t stop! We all have a favourite childhood book and being the person who creates that magical memory for your own child must be worth working towards.
10 recommended books for babies:
Baby’s Very First Book: Faces by Jo Lodge – excellent crinkly black and white fabric book, including a mirror for the baby to check out their own reflection.
Baby Touch First Focus: Things That Go – vehicles in black, white and yellow, with different noises to make as you read.
I Kissed the Baby! by Mary Murphy (currently out of print) – lovely black and white book with splashes of colour, with an excuse to tickle and kiss your little one.
That’s Not My Pirate by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells – this series is the gift that keeps giving, with every conceivable theme and quality touch-and-feel pages.
First 100 Animals by Roger Priddy – a bright animal book that uses photos rather than illustrations.
Sing Along with Me: The Wheels on the Bus by Yu-Hsuan Huang – the classic nursery rhyme includes a QR code to download the music.
Peepo! By Janet and Allan Ahlberg – one of the best picture books with hundreds of details to point out, plus classic ‘peepo’ fun
Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell – one of the original lift-the-flap books with a playful story to entertain.
Lulu Loves Flowers by Anna McQuinn – a lovely story incorporating garden nature and friendships.
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss – a masterclass in language!