The first baby books you get from someone else aren't likely to be the first books your baby will like. You stand a good chance of getting The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Guess How Much I Love You, On The Night You Were Born, or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Plus some Seuss, probably. And those are all great. But they're not the first books your baby will love.
Tiny babies six months and younger are just learning about the world and what's in it. Pediatricians recommend reading to them right from birth. But reading what? (Besides Shakespeare, of course.) They're so small--how do you get them interested in books? How do you start making reading fun for both of you as soon as possible?
It's not too hard! You want to hold their attention, associate books with fun, and create a routine around reading. The categories below will get you off to a good start: Contrast for when baby is super little, Playtime and Song books for fun, and Sleepytime books for naps and bed. Rhythm is a good intermediate category that can be used for any of the slots.
I recommend picking one book from each section, whatever appeals to you most. They also make cheap, durable, useful baby shower gifts that aren't quite as likely to be doubled up on.
High-contrast books are for early days, when your baby still gets tripped out looking at a stripy shirt. They'll help you start the habit of book time, but by three months these are pretty well out of their usefulness, so they're good candidates to borrow from the library. Try to talk about what’s happening on the page, even if there’s no text. Even if it's more of a DIY Rorschach test.
I Kissed the Baby (Amazon). Singsong text, simple actions, and the excitement of a new baby in the world animate high-contrast animals.
Look, Look! (Amazon). Trippy illustrations and verb-heavy text to give some action to the moment when you're ready.
Black & White (Amazon). A lot of objects to point at.
Hello, Animals! (Amazon). Cute animal illustrations with shiny foil.
Manhattan Toy Wimmer-Ferguson See and Say Board Book (Amazon). Mirror at the end, as bonus baby bait. One word per page.
These and the playtime books are the best and longest-lasting of the infant books, so you may want to pick a few. They’re illustrated song lyrics, some with established tunes, some that just suggest a tune when you read the words. Sing it! The song will become memorable to your little one sooner than plain reading will, and if you can dance them around a little on your lap, it’s all a great game.
*Snuggle Puppy (Amazon). This is my favorite because it’s such a tender, cuddly book but still lighthearted and fun, not cheesy. Since you don’t have to choose any particular tune for the simple little song, it’s easy for anyone to sing.
Five Little Ducks (Amazon). Also available in Raffi.
*What a Wonderful World (Amazon | Indiebound): The song made famous by Louis Armstrong accompanied by happy, lovely illustrations of a little kid enjoying the wonders of the world. A big hit with my family.
*There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (Amazon). This version replaces the gruesome grade-school "Perhaps she'll die" with "She won't say why" and coughs everybody up at the end. The old lady is particularly spirited and the animals are amusingly freaked out.
The Itsy Bitsy Spider (Amazon). Not my favorite choice because you can’t turn pages and do a finger play at the same time. This version is suuuuper long, though, so if you need a distraction to use in a car or other confined area down the line it may come in handy.
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Amazon). This can be read in front of a mirror for extra interaction, and the Spanish-English version is about as straightforward as dual language reading can get.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (Amazon). There's a zillion versions of this; I don't prefer one over the others but it's a nice song for bedtime.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Small Hoku (Amazon). This is a longer Hawaiiana version of the classic with lovely art.
The Rooster Struts (Amazon). There’s lots of options for books where you can make funny animal noises for your little, but this one offers the opportunity to make animal motions, swinging side-to-side to waddle like a duck or bouncing up and down to hop like a kangaroo. That’s double the enjoyment for a tiny person who likes to shimmy around with you. Definitely make the noises too though!
Noise books include Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? (Amazon), The Jungle Book (Amazon), The Very Busy Spider (Amazon), Your Baby's First Word Will Be Dada (Amazon), and really half the books you see on any board book list.
Global Babies (Amazon) can be fun too, because little babies will often recognize faces earlier than other objects, and they like to look at babies.
These are mostly short, chanty, rhyming texts that are good for bridging the gap between song books and plain prose stories.
Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See? (Amazon). This is the last in the Brown Bear series, so less likely to show up on your doorstep four times than the original but with the same lovely illustration style and chanting rhymes. It features animals all native to the American West.
Home for a Bunny (Amazon). By the author of Goodnight, Moon, this is a daytime search for a place to call your own.
Swing (Amazon). Robert Louis Stevenson's poem and cute illustrations, as simple as it gets.
*Owl and the Pussycat (Amazon). Edward Lear's rhyme with Caribbean tropical themed illustrations. The gender roles are a bit traditional but the scenery is fabulous.
Pout-Pout Fish (Amazon). Not my favorite due to gross noises and questionable problem-solving but well-liked by kids. A pouty fish that lies around saying "gluuuuub" learns to kiss people instead.
Reading before a nap or bedtime is a great way to make sure you get books into the day, and it helps your baby know what to expect and settle down. I have a full list of bedtime books too.
Book of Sleep (Amazon). This one is short, beautiful, and has minimal text. Its sibling, the Book of Babies (Amazon), is also a good choice but less expressly bedtime-directed. In the beginning, of course, that doesn’t much matter.
Going to Bed Book (Amazon). Short, rhyming, and talks about the bedtime routine without being dull.
What you don’t need:
Lift-the-flap and activity books. Your baby is probably too small to enjoy these until at least five months old. They’re just likely to get wrecked before then… and there’s no rush. You will have plenty of time with them later!
Long books. The attention span of a tiny infant can be pretty long, but when they are that small you’ll do just as well reading to them from whatever you’ve got on the nightstand. Once they are paying a bit more attention, they also have lots of other things to do. You probably aren’t going to be able to spend an afternoon reading together just yet.
Educational books. Don’t worry about trying to teach colors, numbers, letters, or whatever else comes in a “primer”—right now your baby is learning to experience the world. All these concepts will come much later, and they’re boring for you, so don’t bother.