Seattle's Child

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Babies and Books

In 1980, Dorothy Butler from New Zealand announced in her landmark publication that Babies Need Books. Research over the past 30 years into early literacy skills and developmentally appropriate activities indicate that her proclamation is still true: babies do need books! Even though technology has captured the attention of adults wishing to download books onto computers and other devices, the most desirable format for infants remains board books. These small, chewable, age-appropriate books are made available by numerous publishers of children's books.

Infants (newborn to 12 months) open their eyes to an exciting, new, mysterious world. Typically, parents provide them with clarity and an understanding of what is around them by talking, singing, dancing, showing, sharing, etc. Looking into their eyes, parents quickly realize that their little ones have all the characteristics of an animate sponge: they are ready and willing to soak up any and all the information an adult shares. That includes all their senses: They benefit most from those experiences that involve touch, smell, hearing, sight, and taste. Books can satisfy many of the sensory needs of the baby if shared in a planned, consistent and meaningful way.

My experience with teaching parents in sessions of "Language Play for Infants" has shown that a simple technique of sharing connects the infant with the board book.

The technique is as follows: hold the child in either the right or left arm close to the body, and place the book into the same hand. Open the book and tap the left side of the page twice with the other hand, saying the name of what is shown (don't be concerned with what may be written on the page), then move to the right side and do the same tapping/speaking sequence. Continue throughout the book, using the same technique.

Notice that the infant's eyes are drawn to the object on the page, as a result of the tapping. Why is this true? The infant has no idea where to focus or what to look at. The parent is providing the cues in a multi-sensory format that the little one can follow and process. When repeated each time a book is shared, the infant will eventually tap the page and expect the adult to name the object. This is a first step in promoting early literacy skills: interacting with the physical book; directional prompts of moving from left to right; holding a book right side up; exposure to the words in our language.

Although many children's publishers do produce board books in a variety of formats, most are typically one-fourth the size of a standard picture book, or around 5 by 6 inches, making them much easier to hold in the small hands of an infant with limited fine-motor skills. Physically, the books most appropriate for infants are made of sturdy, thick cardboard, many with rounded corners, and limited in length to five to seven pages each.

So how should the parent go about selecting the best titles for little ones? Brain research with very young children has shown that this age group learns and responds best with books that:

1. are repetitious

2. are simple in content

3. are rhythmic and/or rhyme

4. have recognizable, realistic objects or characters

5. have clear, uncluttered backgrounds

6. use basic colors

7. are memorable and enjoyable

8. have objects or characters surrounded by plenty of white space

9. provide an opportunity for tactile experiences.

As one might expect, not every book examined will have ALL of the above characteristics. Of major importance are recognizable objects and/or characters and clear, uncluttered backgrounds. If an object shown in a board book is familiar in everyday life, the infant will be able to recognize it when seen in his or her world. Having plenty of white space around it, uncluttered by nonessentials, makes it more easily distinguished.

I have offered a list of great books for infants to get you started.

Yes, babies do need books, and parents are the ones who have the opportunity to share and engage their infants in developmentally appropriate early literacy activity.



The books below are outstanding titles for infants. Many are or should be readily available to order online, request from a favorite bookstore or find at the public library. The parent will quickly become aware, from watching the reactions of their little one, those that are favorites. 

I Can; I Touch; I Hear; I See, by Helen Oxenbury (a set of four books), (Random House, 1986). These books depict the child at the center of his or her cozy universe.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain, by Rosemary Wells, (Scholastic, 1998). The author’s colorful illustrations bring new life to this familiar rhyme.

Peek-a-WHO?, by Nina Laden, (Chronicle Books, 2000). Vibrant colors make this a charming visual treat for the youngest little one, guessing who’s next?

Baby Faces, by Margaret Miller, (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Some of the classic expressions are captured: smiles, pouts, wrinkly noses, and more.

Hurry! Hurry!, by Eve Bunting,  (Little Simon, 1998). A rooster shouts across the barnyard for all the animals to witness a special event.

Dr. James Thomas worked for 30 years as a public school elementary and secondary librarian, a university professor and, most recently, the children’s librarian at the Bellevue Public Library. He is an early literacy consultant. 

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Seattle Child Staff

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