How One Nonprofit is Integrating Reading into Pediatric Care


Experts say a child’s health and well-being during the first three years of their life will affect their future learning, behavior and health. Countless studies show that reading to children during that period is crucial for their cognitive development and for fostering a strong parent-child bond.

The nonprofit Reach Out and Read aims to make that goal attainable and achievable by integrating reading into pediatric care, thereby setting the stage for lifelong success. Dr. Eileen Costello, medical director of Reach Out and Read, says there’s no easier way to help shape a child’s brain than setting aside time to read with your child.

“You know, there’s nothing quite as simple an intervention as reading to children — having a child on your lap or snuggled up right next to you with a book between your hands,” Costello said. “Kids learn so much, both about the way that language works, the way that stories are told, and about relationships and bonding with people that they love.”

Now a nationwide program, Reach Out and Read began in Massachusetts over 30 years ago at Boston Medical Center while Costello was in training. Attending physicians brought in books for young patients to take home, which sparked the idea for Reach Out and Read. Now, almost 2,000 pediatricians have been trained across Massachusetts, and about 240,000 kids every year are served by Reach Out and Read.

“We’re trying to reach kids whose families are not going out to libraries and bookstores because they’re living in poverty, or they don’t have the time because they’re working so hard, or they weren’t raised with books in the home,” she said. “Then, we make it part of a pediatric visit effort to say, ‘Oh, here, I’m going to see a 9-month-old right now for a well child visit. I’m going to bring a book into the room.’”

Costello said, as a pediatrician, she sees firsthand the positive effects of early childhood reading. She says the children do better in kindergarten, become more familiar with language, and understand how words on pages correlate with words spoken out loud. But it also helps her understand her patients on a social-emotional level.

“When I see a child in a primary care setting, I learn a lot by watching how that child interacts with the book and with their parents and with me,” she said. “Is there joy? Is there a connection? Are they looking at a picture smiling and then looking at me or their mom or their dad to make sure that they’re enjoying it? That kind of shared attention is something we want to see pretty early in a child’s life.”

By the time a baby is 6 months old, they are able to interpret emotion and recognize their own name. By 12 months, they have a slight understanding of basic, spoken commands. But Costello said that just because a child doesn’t understand the words in a book, parents should still read to their kids.

“Kids love repetition, so we advise parents to just read it over and over again. If they throw it on the floor, pick it up. Make up stories! You know, some families like the books that don’t even have words associated with them, and they just make things up,” she said.

With Massachusetts as its flagship state, Reach Out and Read’s influence has already expanded significantly, and Costello says the work isn’t over. The nonprofit is already working to become a part of every federally qualified health center, and Costello also wants to expand across languages and cultures.

“You know, handing a Spanish language children’s book to a child and her grandmother, who only speaks Spanish, is an amazing experience because the grandmother lights up, ‘Oh, my God, it’s in Spanish. I can read this to her!’” she said. “It’s just such a wonderful way to keep their own language and culture alive.”

Originally shared in this WGBH article by Kana Ruhalter and Craig LeMoult