The Power of Reading Together for Families During the Pandemic

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Mother laying on bed reading to daughter It’s almost impossible to fully unveil and quantify the impact COVID-19 has had on families. Although children have largely been spared the harshest medical effects of the disease, there’s no denying they have been deeply impacted. It’s commonly said that “it takes a village to raise a child”; this year, those villages have been socially distanced and placed under immense stress from heightened physical or mental illness, underemployment, food insecurity, housing instability, loss of family and friends, and more — each of which affects a child’s ability to thrive. Under this stress, the routines and rituals created within families, like when adults and their children read aloud together, are essential protective factors amidst the storm.

Here's what we know: Shared reading and storytelling between a caregiver and a child build strong bonds. By creating this strong foundation, shared reading and storytelling can ease feelings of stress for both adult and child and replace them with feelings of safety and security that can help families cope with adversity.

How CHOP encourages shared reading

While storytelling and shared reading may seem like small interventions amidst the turmoil of the pandemic, pediatricians have long seen the power of these routines in families. At Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), we encourage the routine of shared reading through Reach Out and Read (ROR), a nonprofit program that gives young children a foundation for success by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read aloud together.

During regular check-ups from infancy to kindergarten, pediatricians walk into the exam room with a new, age-appropriate children’s book. “The book serves as a gift to the family at each visit,” says Danielle Erkoboni, MD, a pediatrician at CHOP’s Karabots Primary Care Center, Norristown, and a faculty member of CHOP’s PolicyLab. “The book focuses and calms the child, easily guiding the evaluation of developmental milestones, and allowing the pediatrician to demonstrate the power of a story in each visit.”

During this time, pediatricians encourage reading aloud, storytelling, lap time, singing and other language-rich interactions. “Participation in ROR is associated with more books in the home, more frequent reading aloud by parents, strengthened parent-child interactions, and significant increases in expressive and receptive language in earlier childhood,” explains Eileen Everly, MD, a pediatrician at the Nicolas and Athena Karabots Pediatric Care Center, West Philadelphia.

The many benefits of books and stories

Whatever way books are acquired, they can have a positive effect on families. “When books come out, a change is noticeable — children and caregivers come together, sit closer and smile more,” says Trude Haecker, MD, Medical Director of Global Patient Services and Medical Director of Reach Out and Read at CHOP. “We want to develop a love of books and reading within the entire family, which can then naturally establish reading as a family routine.”

As we face the continued impacts of the pandemic on families, the routine of reading can promote healing. “Recently, during a visit with a young patient, her mom opened up about how she had lost four family members to COVID-19, including her father, who used to read to the child before bed most nights,” says Dr. Erkoboni. “The book I gave the child reminded mom of her dad, and because of it we were able to discuss how their growing library could serve as windows into new times and mirrors to help reflect on and grow from the traumas they had faced this year.”

Routines like reading and storytelling can make families feel grounded — and empower them, too, through the pandemic and beyond.

  • Danielle Erkoboni, MD, a pediatrician at the Karabots Primary Care Center, Norristown, and a faculty member at CHOP’s PolicyLab
  • Eileen Everly, MD, a pediatrician at Karabots Pediatric Care Center, West Philadelphia
  • Trude Haecker, MD, Medical Director of Global Patient Services and Medical Director of Reach Out and Read at CHOP

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