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From a newborn’s first wail, the brain acts like a sponge, absorbing every sensory experience, the good and the bad.
What will help one child get past ugly experiences and keep another mired in them, childhood experts say, is the strength of a human bond formed early in life.
It’s the same bond that helps build a strong neural network where language develops.
Sovanary Heang, who’s the mother of three, says reading books to them helped her form that bond with her children — now 18, 12 and 5 years old.
When she took her new baby for a wellness visit at a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia clinic, the pediatrician handed her a book and talked about the importance of reading to her child. The pediatrician said the family would continue getting brand-new books if they kept coming back for wellness visits.
“I was speechless. Really? Free?” Heang remembered recently.
The program is called Reach Out and Read. It was founded by two Boston pediatricians in 1989 and is now nationwide at 6,200 clinic-based sites.
The program has trained 33,000 health-care providers in the importance of the parent-child interaction.
Reach Out and Read particularly helps families that typically don’t own books and can’t afford them. Kids get books starting at 6 months old and continuing through age 5.
Children’s Hospital pediatrics professor James Guevara said those Boston pediatricians started Reach Out and Read “based on the growing scientific evidence that young children, including newborns, are very attentive to sounds they could hear, especially from their parents.”
While the program officially starts at 6 months with the first wellness visit, “we encourage parents to begin reading early in infancy,” Guevara said.
Pediatrician and program director Trude Haecker brought Reach Out and Read to CHOP in 1996. Working in West Philadelphia, she noticed her patients couldn’t afford books or get to the library during operating hours.
“At the time, I just thought it was a really good idea,” Haecker said. “Now, I can speak with authority.”
Today, the Philadelphia area has 81 Reach Out and Read sites. CHOP has at least 20; Einstein Healthcare Network has nine. The Philadelphia Health Department has eight sites, and the Greater Philadelphia Health Action Medical Services, four. Program members rely on donations to buy new and gently used books.
Physician-to-parent education is “the special sauce,” said Danielle Erkoboni, a general pediatrician and CHOP researcher. Parents don’t turn down books — if anything, they want more books.
“Most are reminding me, ‘If I forget, Dr. Danielle, you promised me a book.’ ” Her favorite memory: A child bringing “Hop on Pop,” bandaged in duct tape, to a wellness visit.
The parents also gain.
“I saw ROR as a tool” to learn to read English, “and grabbed it,” said Sovanary Heang, who immigrated to the United States from Cambodia 22 years ago.
More recently, Yi Song brought her son, Brayden Yu, 2, in for his wellness visit at the CHOP primary-care center in West Philadelphia. She said Brayden’s books are helping her learn English.
Pediatrician Eileen Everly said the books are distributed by the level of child development: Can a 3-year-old name three colors? Count how many bears are on a page? Can a 1-year-old identify the face? (Some of the well-loved titles include “Barnyard Dance” and “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”)
The doctors also pass out tips along with the books — like it’s OK for a 9-month-old to put a book into his mouth.
The littlest children get board books. Doctors like to start distributing books at baby’s first wellness visit — clothing size, 0-3 months.
Often, it’s not books that pediatricians see when they walk into a well-visit waiting room. Phones are in the parents’ hands, and screens are being swiped. That’s frustrating, the doctors said.
But on a recent morning, Teneika Thomas and her 4-year-old son, Kyiren Smith, were reading when Everly walked in.
The doctor asked how much screen time Kyiren gets each day. At first, Thomas was reluctant to say. But Everly pressed gently — no judgment, she said.
Three hours, Thomas conceded.
That’s OK, said Everly. What’s better, she said, is “you aren’t proud of it.”
CHOP has a number of studies in the works. Researcher Erkoboni has funding to learn what parents know and don’t know about the early learning stages of brain development beyond language.
CHOP’s Guevara, who is also a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, has looked at how text messages might encourage parents of infants in three age groups —1 week, 2 weeks, and 4 weeks old — to interact with their children, versus those parents who received safety text messages such as “Remember to use a car seat.”
That study, which is still being peer-reviewed, showed that parents in the study group “recorded a richer home reading environment,” Guevara said.
Another study, involving 103 1-year-olds in Philadelphia and Bucks County, asked whether children are more interested in looking at stories on phones versus in the traditional way. The answer: No.
“We didn’t see it as a benefit,” Guevara said.
Reach Out and Read ’s chief of strategic initiatives, Nikki Shearman, said Medicaid is picking up the tab for the program in two states, New York and Oklahoma, and other states are considering it.
The program has made an impact, she said — and it wants to make a larger one.
If the goal is consistent parent-child interaction, the challenge to meet it is there. In 2014, the U.S. Census reports, only 63 percent of youngsters under 6 were read to at least five times a week.