Reading to Babies: Six Tips for Getting Past the Ripping Phase

I’m all about reading to children – the earlier the better. It’s easy to read to small babies, because they are fairly docile and easily mesmerized by Mama’s voice. Don’t laugh, but when Hannah was a baby I read her the entire Little House on the Prairie series AND the entire Narnia series. I’m not sure how much of it she remembers (I suppose I could have devised a comprehension test based on blinking or something, but even I am not that crazy) but it kept the house from feeling so silent and passed the time.

I will now pause to marvel over the fact that my house EVER felt silent or that I EVER did something just to pass the time.

After the baby becomes mobile and more vocal, reading becomes a bit more of a challenge. Suddenly the formerly attentive infant wants to grab at the book and tear the pages instead of sitting quietly in your lap. What to do?

I find with my kids the grabbing/book tearing phase lasts until the child is about 15-17 months old. Here is what I do to get them through the ripping phase quickly:

1) Don’t stop reading
Don’t let the grabbing and ripping tendencies keep you from reading to your baby or toddler. Hearing a wide range of vocabulary, properly constructed sentences, good voice inflection and rhyme help your child’s development. If you’re reading aloud and the child is in the room, it’s helping. The more you fill their world with reading, and the more they see you loving to read and loving to read to them, the more likely they are to want to enjoy reading with you. Stick with it!

2) Give the child something to hold
My son especially needed something to do with his hands while we were reading. I let him hold a little car or other small toy to keep him from feeling the need to rip at pages while we were reading. You can also give the child some blocks or stacking cups or something to play with at your feet as you read and hold up the book so the child can see the pictures but it’s still out of reach. There’s nothing wrong with reading while kids play quietly in the same room. We’ve read a lot of longer books that way, even after the kids were old enough not to rip pages, and it’s amazing how much comprehension they have even if you would have thought they were not paying attention.

3) Accept some wear and tear on your books
Don’t get mad about a child messing with the books. Children naturally want to explore their environment with all of their senses, so they want to touch the books you surround them with, in addition to hearing and seeing. If your kids are anything like mine, they might believe that tasting is also in order! I want my children to be around books, and I want reading books to be a big part of their day, so I accept that there will be a little wear and tear on our book collection, much as we try to avoid it. Clear tape is your friend. Most books can be mended. Although my older two kids are fairly careful with books now, just yesterday the baby ripped the cover off of a favorite left carelessly within her reach and the two year old who should know better ripped a page out of another book while trying to wrestle it from his sister. Tape fixed both. Books are meant to be read and loved, and sometimes that means collateral damage.

4) Calmly and pleasantly reinforce the right way to handle books
Although you have to accept some wear and tear, you don’t have to put up with wanton destruction. From the very first time the baby rips a book, gently take it out of her hands and say something like “We don’t rip pages. Our books are special, and we treat them nicely.” Model how to handle books. Emphasize over and over again how we take care of books. We love our books. We want to keep them nice. Believe it or not, eventually your kid will internalize this. Yes, even yours.

5) It’s OK to have a board book phase
While you’re in the process of teaching the child not to rip books, don’t be afraid to put most of the nice books away and just have a few plain paper books out with a bunch of board books. You can get a lot of good books in board book form, and if you wind up reading them all every single day for a few months (as I did with Hannah when she was in this phase) they will just be favorites all the more. Because of that potential outcome, however, be sure you’re choosing GOOD books in board form. Be aware that some publishers issue EGREGIOUSLY abridged versions of classics in board form. Do not buy those. I found that out the hard way when I bought “Dr. Seuss ABC” and “Are You My Mother” in board book form and they were AWFUL. I’m planning a post on good board books for tomorrow, so hold your horses.

6) Be encouraged, keep trying
If you have to put the paper books away, get a few cheap ones from a library book sale or a used book store and keep trying them. If the baby rips the page, just calmly say “Oh no, that’s not how we treat books,” tape it up and try again the next day. Be encouraged, the phase doesn’t last forever. If you keep reading to your child they will grow out of the destructive phase eventually and learn to treat their books better.

If you’ve successfully navigated the ripping stage with your children, do you have any other tips for us?

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