When a toddler engages with books, something absolutely magical happens. Seeing a toddler's wide-eyed face light up at the helm of a board book about giraffes makes my book-loving heart soar. Experts say the reasoning behind why toddlers love books is absolutely multi-faceted, and I personally believe their attachment to books is one of the sweetest things to witness.
"When a child is being read to, typically what happens is the reader and the child focus their attention on something together, which has positive impacts on cognitive development. The child is also usually learning vocabulary, and perhaps developing some social-emotional routines for self-soothing," Timothy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Founding Director of the UIC Center for Literacy tells Romper. "Of course, toddlers often pick up a book themselves, perhaps playing with it like a toy, but often trying to read it, or pretending to read it to someone else."
Shanahan gives an example of his 2-year-old grandson picking up a book and pretending to read it away from himself as if to a group of people the way he had seen modeled at day care. Toddlers are little sponges who are soaking up everything around them, which is part of the reason why the habit of reading books sinks in so deeply at such an early age.
"Young children, especially toddlers, are developing a habit of learning through books. They can become more familiar with colors, sounds, a sense of touch, and sight words," Maureen Healy, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child and parenting coach at Growinghappykids.com tells Romper. "Yes, it is unusual to read before preschool, however I have met toddlers who can read sight words. The act of engaging with a book encourages children to continue to discover and explore their world, which is how most children learn."
The actual act of reading to your child is a huge part of why toddlers love books so much. "Usually toddlers love to be read to, and most parents love to do such reading. One can come up with all kinds of aspirational reasons (e.g., the child will read sooner, his/her teachers will recognize that I’m a good parent, Harvard), but the best reason is that both parent and child find it enjoyable. If you want a positive loving relationship with anyone, find ways to spend mutually joyful times together," Shanahan says.
When you read with and to your toddler, you're creating lasting memories and connection with your children, according to Healy. "The parent-child relationship is strengthened through authentic and meaningful interactions, such as reading stories (or telling one from your imagination)," Healy tells Romper.
Despite my own love for reading, when my kids were toddlers, there were definitely days where I wished with all my might that they would just veg out in front of a screen. Alas, my boys both developed a love affair with books early on that lead me to become increasingly sick of reading lines like "One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish" over and over (and over) again. I was so happy that they loved being read to, but I just needed a break. Sometimes they just had to fend for themselves and merely played with their books as toddlers instead of being read to. As it turns out, this way of interacting with books is totally normal for toddlers.
"Toddlers certainly want books that feel good, look interesting, have great images, and even sound or sensory stimulating things (peek-a-book, puppets, touch, or funny mirrors inside). The more interactive a book for a toddler, the better," Healy tells Romper. "And if it's a book about something of interest to them, whether it's going to space or zoo animals, that's the best."
I'm sure that I'm not the only parent who has gotten frustrated or bored by my toddler wanting to read the same exact book over and over again. Shanahan says that this is "normal and very typical of the toddler years" and explains that the connection to a certain book can have a soothing effect on toddlers, as well as help them learn through repetition.
"Last week, one of my granddaughters was having a bad time, so I pulled her up into my lap to read a book. By the time I’d finished the first go-round, she had stopped crying and was quietly attentive. At the end, she asked me to read it again. I did, and this time she was a bit more animated and was obviously engaged. At the end, she again said, 'Again' and we read it a third time," Shanahan says. "I think there is something that is emotionally reassuring about the fact that the book plays out the same each time."
The bottom line is that the benefits of your toddler loving books are plentiful, so encouraging them to explore this love could pay off for years to come.
Maureen Healy, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child and parenting coach at Growinghappykids.com
Timothy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago