The Joy and Challenges of Reading with a Newborn
By Sarah Van Name, Friend of Book Harvest
I had the privilege of a childhood surrounded by books. My parents read to me both before and after I could read to myself: picture books, chapter books, and more. I remember whispering the words of Eric Carle books to myself as a four-year-old, exasperated that I didn’t know how to read in my head yet. I remember reading to my brother during the brief time that I could read and he couldn’t, doing all the characters’ voices. I’m a writer now, but still a reader first. And when I got pregnant last year, one of the things I looked forward to most about being a mom was reading to my daughter.
Then I actually gave birth. I had an actual newborn baby, Miriam, whom somehow my husband I were permitted to take home with no supervision.
The first two weeks were a haze of exhaustion and marvel and tears and nursing and recovery from the grueling process of birth. I watched a lot of TV. I read a lot of easy, light books in the Kindle app on my phone. I did not have the energy or presence of mind to think about doing anything with the baby beyond feeding her, helping her sleep, and putting her on the ground for the required minutes of tummy time. Eventually, though, I came back to myself enough to get excited again about reading to the baby.
Beyond my own love of books, there are great reasons to do this. Reading to children helps their cognitive development and understanding of language and can help them build literacy skills earlier. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you read to your child every day. And it can bond the baby and caregiver in a profound and meaningful way.
So, okay, great—it was time to spark a lifelong love of reading in my firstborn child! I sat down in the cozy chair in her nursery with my infant cuddled against my chest, a stack of board books on the table beside us.
It was then that I had to confront two undeniable facts about the baby. First, she was incredibly small. Second, she could not hold up her own head.
I had known these things about her, of course. She was only a few weeks old. But I had not reckoned with exactly what they would mean in terms of reading to her. I quickly discovered that I could not hold her in a way that 1. was comfortable and supported for both of us, 2. allowed her to see the book, and 3. let me use both hands to hold said book. I could choose one, maybe two of the three. (And comfort was not optional: My body had just been basically ripped in half, and if the baby was uncomfortable, she would start wailing.) With careful positioning, I could hold a board book in one hand in such a way that Miriam could theoretically see it, but by the time I managed to get this set up, she had fallen asleep. Also, with one arm pinned beneath her, I could not turn the page.
Now, arms contorted, trapped in the chair by the sleeping baby and my own best intentions re: literacy, I looked around the room for other options. My eyes landed on a blue paperback copy of From the Mixed Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. A classic.
Like thousands and thousands of other people, I first read From the Mixed Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a child. I loved the story of the two Kincaid children running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sleeping in beds inside exhibits and bathing in a fountain. I had bought this copy at McIntyre’s a few years prior, drawn in by the etching on the front cover, but I hadn’t reread it yet. The edition is smaller than a normal trade paperback and light, easy to hold in one hand.
The next time I sat down with the baby to try to get her to go to sleep, I started reading From the Mixed Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler out loud to her. To my delight, she adored it. (Which is to say that she did not immediately start crying. With a newborn, the bar is low!) Every few days, I would read a page or two as we tried to pass the time together.
She grew quickly, as babies do. Before too long, she could hold her head up enough that I could nestle her into me sitting up and read to her books that were actually for young children: The Pout Pout Fish, Homemade Love, Goodnight Moon. Soon after that, she started to reach out for the pages, so my husband and I started reading her books with elements she could touch and play with, like Is That My Bat? and DJ Baby. Selfishly, I also read to her graphic novels written for adults, like One Hundred Nights of Hero, skipping the parts that weren’t appropriate for kids—she kicked at the pictures, and sometimes that entertained us for a few minutes.
By the time we finished From the Mixed Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Miriam was no longer entertained by packed words on a page and the sound of my voice, so I had to read quickly to keep her attention. But that’s okay. We read age-appropriate books in the mornings and evenings while we play together, and she really engages with them. Plus, now we have a new bedtime routine, with my husband giving her a bottle and me reading her a chapter of a book. She is so sleepy, contentedly suckling, that she can barely keep her eyes open. So instead of board books she’s too tired to look at, I read her the chapter books that I loved as a child. We finished Everything on a Waffle a few nights ago and are now on to The Betsy-Tacy Treasury.
As I write this, my daughter is six months old. She can reach out and turn pages, laugh at her dad, and sit up by herself (although she does sometimes fall over). Her favorite toy is a crinkle book given to her by the woman who took care of me when I was a baby. She is endlessly curious and joyful.
Sometimes I miss holding her when she was too small and new to do anything but sleep and eat and cry. That time, as hard as it was, feels precious. But inevitably she will grow up, find her own favorite books, and become her own person, and I know it’s better to embrace that than to fear it. Plus—it’s a whole lot easier to read to her now that she can hold up her own head.
Sarah Van Name is a friend of Book Harvest and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She lives and works in Durham with her husband, Ben, her daughter, Miriam, and her dog, Toast. She is the author of two young adult novels, The Goodbye Summer (2019, a Junior Library Guild pick) and Any Place But Here (2021). You can find her on Instagram @sarahvanname.