When it comes to reading to children, it’s never too early to start.
To encourage parents to read to even the youngest infants, Sheila Knerr, MD, Director of the Well Nursery at CHOP Pediatric and Newborn Care at Grand View Hospital (GVH), started the Books for Babies program.
Each of the 1,300 newborns born at GVH each year receives a gift bag that includes a board book, Reading Rockets’ “reading tips for babies” handout, a personally designed bookmark and a library card application. This gift is presented to each mother at discharge by the baby’s pediatrician, who explains the importance of reading to children and encourages families to make it part of their routines.
The Pediatric and Obstetrics departments, as well as hospital leaders at GVH, have enthusiastically supported the idea. “We replaced an outdated gift of formula with a gift that can change lives,” Knerr says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends pediatricians “use a robust spectrum of options to support and promote literacy,” and research shows that when pediatricians promote reading, parents listen.
“We know that reading with young children results in improved language skills in toddlers and improves school readiness,” Knerr says. “Now there is exciting new functional MRI data that shows that the areas of the brain that support mental imagery (imagination) are more active in 3-year-olds who have been read to at home. Reading changes babies’ brains!
“It’s not just scholastic achievement that gets a boost. Reading to children leads to stronger emotional bonds with parents and the child developing resilience. Children who are resilient in the face of stress are healthier.”
“Now there is exciting new functional MRI data that shows that the areas of the brain that support mental imagery (imagination) are more active in 3-year-olds who have been read to at home.”
Knerr used a CHOP Cares Grant to purchase books from Penguin Publishing at a deeply discounted rate. She also collaborates with the Reach Out and Read program at CHOP, which promotes literacy for children 6 months to 5 years by giving books and guidance at primary care visits, for ideas about appropriate materials for parents and for inspiration about discussing the importance of reading. CHOP has partnered with local library systems to explore ways to work together to foster support and enthusiasm for reading among families.
The first gift bags were given out on Mother’s Day 2016, and early feedback shows they’ve been well received. Knerr is surveying families to help assess the impact of the materials on reading and library use.
Research is at the heart of another reading promotion study at CHOP that seeks to learn if at-risk urban children’s language and cognitive development benefits if they are read to as newborns compared to starting at 6 months old.
“The impetus for the Early Literacy Promotion Study was the growing recognition that shared reading activities should take advantage of emerging research on early infant brain development,” says James Guevara, MD, MPH, Director of Interdisciplinary Initiatives at PolicyLab, CHOP’s research group that integrates children’s health with public policy. “The AAP has called on pediatricians to recommend shared reading beginning early in infancy, but there is a lack of data on effectiveness for reading this early.”
Guevara recruited 120 families with Medicaid insurance from the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pediatric Care Center, a CHOP Care Network location in West Philadelphia, to participate. Half of the families received books and coaching on reading to their infants beginning with the 1-week check-up. Those families also received text reminders about reading to their babies every day. The other half was put in the standard literacy promotion program, Reach Out and Read, beginning when their child was 6 months old.
All participating children will be evaluated for socio-emotional development and expressive and receptive language development.
“Low-income urban children are at an increased risk for language and cognitive delays, which can lead to poor school readiness and disparities in educational outcomes compared to children from middle and upper income families,” Guevara says. “This study may give us evidence that reading to infants can help close that gap.”