Every year, I teach a survey of children’s literature class to MLIS students. After I have covered the history of children’s publishing, and children’s literacy development, I spend a whole class on books for babies. It’s one of my favourite classes because I get to bring an enormous stack of baby books to class and teach my students all about them.
Reading to babies
I start out by reminding them that human babies are born totally helpless and frankly – they don’t care what anyone reads to them. That being said, babies do want and need to be held and touched and interacted with. Books designed for babies do seem to offer parents and caregivers a nice way of doing just that: holding, touching, and interacting with their babies from their earliest days onwards.
When babies are born, their vision is not fully developed so high contrast books with very clear and spare black and white or brightly colored illustrations with clear lines are recommended so that baby can “see” the pages as the parents turn them and talk or read to the baby. At the very beginning of their lives, babies might not (definitely do not) have a clue what is going – but what they will soon learn is that these book things are associated with a nice, pleasurable time with a trusted caregiver. This is the beginning of print motivation, which we know is important for learning to read later on.
How Books support baby’s development
As babies develop, their interest in books grows along with their intellect. They start to recognize things and are eventually able to create mental models of things that are not immediately in front of them. Books help with this aspect of their cognitive development as they are shown many things in books that they might not otherwise have seen before. For example, they might get to know exactly what a donkey is and what it sounds like long before they ever meet a donkey in real life.
Additionally, babies’ motor skills develop rapidly. They go from flailing newborns – when they are unable to control their limbs at all, but within a year (or so) most of them can clap and pick up Cheerios by themselves. These motor skills are important for holding books, turning pages and of course, eventually learning to write.
For growing babies, books definitely become “toys” but books also offer them important early literacy skills practice: noticing print, turning pages, holding books the right way up, etc. These are all things that need to be mastered before reading takes off when they get to school, so a solid familiarity with books is important for young children’s literacy development.
After about a year, babies start their transition from babyhood to the stage we refer to as toddlerhood. Their brains are growing very, very fast but that doesn’t mean the world makes sense for them yet. Very young children have a lot of trouble seeing anything from any point of view other than their own. This means that they are naturally self-centred and prone to loud emotional outbursts, but their capacity for empathy does grow along with their overall emotional maturity. Books can also help children in this age group this age learn about how they are feeling, and learn the words that describe their feelings.
Babies with delays and disabilities need books
Babies with disabilities are also developing but their development might be on a different tack than their typical age peers. Also, babies who eventually end up being diagnosed with a developmental issue are first identified between the ages of 1 and 3 when the typical stages of walking and talking don’t appear as expected. Therefore, disabled babies as well as those who will eventually be identified are highly likely to have language delays and need the language and literacy boost that books offer as much as, if not more than, their typically developing age peers.
It is critical that library’s baby and toddler book collections be as diverse and inclusive as possible. Babies from all culture and ethnicities, family structures and with all abilities should see themselves and their families in books. Recently, I have noticed an uptick in the photographic representation of disabled babies in board books and think this is a very welcome development in representation that has long been overdue.
Some recommended board books for your shelves
Here are some of my all-time favourite books for babies, including some newer ones. The titles with asterisks* include photographic representation of children with disabilities.
Hello, Humpback Stunning illustrations by of West Coast wildlife combine with simple, lyrical phrases that will entrance and delight babies and their loving caregivers.
How we eat *Photographs of gorgeous babies and toddlers depict realistic view of the diverse ways that people eat, including feeding tubes, along with spoons, cups, and chopsticks.
Give me a snickle *The winner of the inaugural Margaret Wise Brown Board Book Award for babies 0-18 months, features fun wordplay along with photographs of families loving up their beautiful babies.
I kissed the baby! High contrast, delightful illustrations accompany a sweet story of how a various animals react to the arrival of a new baby duck.
Toesy Toes *Featuring gorgeous photographs of children with diverse names, ethnicities and abilities, babies, toddlers, and their caregivers will delight in this fabulous celebration of toes!
Finally, here is a great resource for ensuring your board book collections are fresh and up to date.
The Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature Best Board Books of the Year 2023
What are some of your favourite board books for babies? Share in the comments!
Tess Prendergast worked as a children’s librarian for over twenty years and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She has served on many ALSC committees and now facilitates the Preschool Services Discussions at ALA Annual. You can read more about her work here and here.