From about 6 months of age, babies have an adequate understanding that pictures are in fact two-dimensional representations of real things. Prior to this age, they may well look briefly at them, but will soon crawl off to find real, three-dimensional objects they can relate to. At these times never force them to focus on books, or listen to your stories as they don't know the difference between your normal talking and what you may be reading.
Early reading time should just involve sitting and focussing on some pictures on a page for a few minutes, maybe saying nothing at all as you both take turns in turning the pages, or just using a single word to tell them the name of each thing as you point. As they learn to talk, ask them the names and ask them to point to the ones you name. The best first images are of everyday things which are familiar to them. Make your own picture book in a ring bound folder with pages of firm cardboard that depicts common things around your place. We had such a book with things like nappies hanging on the line; a baby in the bath; the garden swing; the car; the dog; a pair of gum boots; shoes; a spoon; a cup; etc. These pictures were all very basic, as none of us were great artists, but the book was filled with love and lasted many years (for 3 children in fact) since it was easily upgradeable and indestructible (un-chewable, and tear-proof!).
The most popular time for early book reading is the bedtime story. This can be a nice ritual where parent and child spend quiet time together and after a story the child is happy to go to sleep. Be sure to set a limit on the number of books or stories - one really is enough. Firstly, a young child's imagination doesn't need to be overloaded with lots of conflicting stories. It is better they finish and contemplate the one passage they heard. Secondly the "please, just one more story" game can begin as a way for the child to put off the inevitability of bed. To add other reading times in the day is good as well, giving them another solitary activity they can draw upon without your help.
Exposing a child to a wide range of sounds is important for their brain function, their hearing, their speech development, as well as instilling a love of music and awakening a child's potential to make it themselves. As intuition tells us, and as studies have now backed up, this can begin even before birth(48). Through the simple use of the voice, the chanting of mantras, the playing of an
instrument, and by exposing your unborn and newly born babe to suitable kinds of music, the body can be relaxed, the heart calmed, and the mind stilled.
There are two very different kinds of music - live and recorded. Making and enjoying music live is a very ancient activity for humans, whereas passively listening to a recording (usually whilst doing something else) is a very recent phenome-non. Personally, I believe live acoustic music to be the best of all as a teaching tool for children. Even so-called roughly sung, badly played, home-made music can have a beneficial effect upon children, and that is because it comes from the heart, and more than transmitting to the ears, it links people together in a more primal way.
In our house we have a harmonium - a traditional air bellows reed organ - upon which any person over 5 can tap out a simple melody. I use it with the kids for kirtan (ragas plus mantras), sometimes in the day but most often just before their bed. It helps us all to relax into a meditative state. I often hear them singing those songs during the day while they play, recreating that same state of mind. But any instrument can be used to focus the mind and calm the heart in the same way - even just the voice, which brings us to the topic of nursery rhymes and lullabies.
Lullabies are designed to comfort and / or lull a child into sleep, and they certainly help parents relax too! You can introduce your baby to them as early as in-utero. When sung by the raw human voice, they are the second most elemental music to mantra chanting. And like kirtans, their melody and words have the desired effect even if sung in a foreign language. Rather than playing a tape of lullabies or adding an instrument, learn a few yourself to sing quietly with your baby just before bed.
Nursery rhymes have simple rhythms, tunes, rhymes, stories and images which are easy for a child to remember and comprehend. They help them to form particular words and phrases and are fun to do in groups with actions.
To fully appreciate music (live or recorded) it is of most benefit to simply sit and listen to it, with full attention, rather than to just have it as background noise. For many people background music has become a habit, an automatic companion. They admit to "not liking silence" - "I need my music on all the time" they say. This is a great shame, firstly for the composers and performers whose skills and creative efforts have become unconscious to the listener, but also for a child who grows up missing out on the beauty of silence and the music that may be playing in their own head.