Doctor’s Orders: Read to Your Kids

Do you have young children? Don’t be surprised if the next time you see your pediatrician, you’re advised to start reading to them.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a new policy statement urging pediatricians to encourage parents to read to their kids from infancy. It will prepare them to succeed in school and life, says the AAP’s Council on Early Childhood.

Reading stimulates brain development and builds parent-child relationships at a crucial period of a child’s development, according to the AAP. This in turn is said to build “language, literacy, and social-emotional skills.”

An Invaluable Foundation

Research indicates that reading to children at a young age not only makes them more successful in school, but also later in life. Reading proficiency by the third grade is the most important predictor of high-school graduation and career success, notes the AAP. About two-thirds of children in the United States aren’t meeting that benchmark.

Pediatricians have a unique opportunity to advise parents on how to raise healthy children. They are the first professionals that parents establish a consistent relationship with around the care of their child. Recommendations to read that are given out at the doctor’s office are more likely to be heeded by parents, according to the AAP.

Brian Gallagher, executive director of Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy to health care providers, and who helped draft the AAP’s policy statement,agrees. Reach Out and Read started in Boston in 1989, after pediatricians there found that in conversations with parents during routine visits, many weren’t reading regularly to their children and had few, if any, books in their homes.

“Pediatricians realized they had a pretty powerful platform to begin to change parents’ behavior, attitude, and understanding about why reading matters and how it helps their children learn, grow, and develop, especially in those early years,” says Gallagher. “Parents do tend to listen to what pediatricians have to say because parents want what’s best for their child.”

Studies indicate every new word a child learns is important to language development. Children whose parents read to them are able to significantly increase the richness of their vocabulary and their understanding of complex syntax. Studies also show that reading time as part of a well-connected pattern of vocal interaction between parent and child builds nurturing relationships that are significant to a child’s cognitive, language, and social-emotional development.

“It’s an opportunity for the child to sit on the parent’s lap and have that bonding moment where the child is feeling the love of the parent through the book, hearing their voice,” says Gallagher. “Then again it’s that exposure from an early age to the letters on the page, and the words. As children get into those preschool years, all of that culminates into early literacy skills, which help children as they’re getting ready for kindergarten.”

Reaching All Kids

The AAP’s new policy is based on data that indicate a more than decade-long lag in parents reading to their children — especially for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. These children are much more likely to develop reading problems, repeat a grade, and to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, states the AAP, citing information from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Later in life, their inadequate reading skills are associated with modest economic potential and the perpetual cycle of poverty, poor health, and dependency on others.

Reach Out and Read helps pediatricians and family health care providers put age-appropriate books into the hands of parents and children. It also trains doctors and nurses on how to speak with parents about the importance of reading to kids.

Affiliated providers distribute 6.5 million books to children to take home each year, and Reach Out and Read cites studies showing that children served by the program score three to six months ahead on vocabulary tests versus their peers who haven’t accessed the program.

The organization now serves 20,000 health care providers — Carilion Clinic among them — in 50 states. It recently received a donation from Scholastic Inc. of 500,000 books to distribute to doctors’ offices.

“We are extremely enthusiastic about Reach Out and Read,” says Donna Deadrick, B.S.N., R.N., C.P.N., of Carilion’s General Pediatrics in Roanoke and regional chairperson for the program. “It brings books into our exam rooms along with an emphasis on early literacy."

“Doctors give new books to children at each well-child visit from 6 months of age to 5 years,” she says. “They also give parents developmentally appropriate advice about reading to their child."

“Our patients look forward to taking home books at their well-checks,” says Kelly D. Henchel, M.D., F.A.A.P., Carilion chief of general pediatrics. “We also have a nice library of donated, gently used books in the office for distributing to children who are asking for books at other visits.”

Carilion is the only provider in the region to participate in Reach Out and Read. Since March 2005, the office has given more than 30,000 books to local children.

This article was writen by Jay Conley and published in the Fall 2014 print issue of Carilion Clinic Living.