Category Archives: Infant Neurology

Babies, Maternity Wards, and Books—Oh, My!

“..what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.”

by Kim Jocelyn Dickson

As a former third grade teacher, I’d often wished I could roll back time and meet the parents of my struggling readers at the door of their maternity hospital with a stack of picture books. There was nothing sadder to me than an eight year old that had missed out on being read to from the very start.

After years of teaching and observing students, it became clear to me that children who struggled in school lacked the necessary tools that come from being read to that their successful peers possessed. Brain science tells us that the first three years of life are critical in building the neural pathways that are the infrastructure for all future intellectual and emotional growth. In order for a child’s brain to make these connections, parents need to speak, read to, and sing with their babies.

According to the results of the 2017 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress—otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card), which tests a cross-section of fourth and eighth graders from public and private schools every two years, nearly two-thirds of fourth and eighth grade students do not read proficiently. That the United States is suffering a crisis of literacy is beyond dispute, but the good news is that our awareness of the problem is growing and people and organizations are finding creative ways to address it.

When I recently learned that the thing I’d wished for was actually happening in my former hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, through a program called Born to Read, I was intrigued and had to learn more. A few emails and a phone call later with Library Director Kristen Sorth, and I was convinced that what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.

In 2015 Ms. Sorth and her team of librarians and volunteers from the St. Louis County Library system, along with the support of a handful of local maternity hospitals, began reaching out to new parents with a gift that sends the message that babies and books belong together. Just two years later every single maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County were on board.

What inspired you to bring Born to Read to St. Louis County?

We brought this program to St. Louis County to help give families a head start. Studies show that when children start behind, they stay behind. The goal of Born to Read is to foster a love of reading starting at birth and to emphasize the importance of reading to children of even the youngest age.

That your program has grown to include every maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County—11 in all—since you began in 2015 is a tribute to your success. What, exactly, do the parents of each newborn in St. Louis County receive from the library?

 Each gift bag includes a board book, baby’s first library card, early literacy information, a baseball Cardinals’ beanie, and a voucher for two Cardinals’ tickets, a toothbrush, and another board book.

What do you hope each new parent gains from this gift?

 We developed the Born to Read program to reach families at the earliest possible moment. We want to convey the importance of reading and to make it easy for parents to introduce books into their daily routine.

Was gaining the support of the medical community challenging in any way? Is their support at all difficult to maintain?

 The hospitals think it’s a wonderful program. The nurses love giving the bags to the families and encouraging them to read to their children. They know the materials in the bags are purposeful, and they hear great feedback from the families. Ensuring that the hospitals are stocked with enough bags so they never run out can sometimes be a challenge since the nurses and hospital staff are incredibly busy and can’t always let us know right away when they are low. Our weekly visits help to keep them stocked.

Once the initial gift is given, do you follow up with parents later on?

 Parents and babies are invited to the library for a first birthday celebration. The Born to Read parties include story time, sensory play with bubbles and, of course, cake. Parents are also given another free book to take home. These parties are a great first introduction to parents, showing them the variety of resources available at the library.

We also stay in touch with parents via a monthly Early Literacy e–Newsletter, which provides early literacy tips, library event information, and other library resources.

Is Born to Read having an impact on the community? If so, how?

Every child born in St. Louis County now receives a library card, thanks to the Born to Read program. We’re helping create a new generation of readers. To date, we’ve distributed almost 40,000 bags.

With the involvement of every area hospital and clinic you must need a lot of help. How do you accomplish the creation and distribution of all those gift bags?

Our Youth Services staff has done a fabulous job of maintaining the program. Every 6-8 weeks they have a Born to Read work day, where staff form an assembly line to stuff bags and package them for delivery. Each Friday we have a dedicated staff member who delivers bags to area hospitals and clinics. The program has been very popular among local volunteer groups as well. We have corporate and business groups that help stuff bags each month.

How is Born to Read funded?

 The St. Louis County Library Foundation helps raise funds for the program. We also have strong corporate support–-the St. Louis Cardinals and Delta Dental have been key supporters of the Born to Read program.

What is the program’s biggest success?

Born to Read has provided a unique opportunity for the Library to reach new parents at the very beginning. Before they even leave the hospital, parents learn about the importance of reading to their baby. We make it easy for them to utilize library resources by providing them with a library card, and the book voucher gives them an incentive for visiting their local branch.

Does the St. Louis County Library provide any other means of educating new parents about the importance of reading to their child from birth?

St. Louis County Library has a variety of early literacy resources for families at every stage of development. Born to Read is the entry point for many families; after that they can sign up for the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten or attend weekly story time at a nearby branch. Later we offer Kindergarten Prep workshops and resources such as FLIP Kits (Family Literacy Involvement Program) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) programming.

With the enormous success you’ve experienced in linking society’s primary stronghold of literacy—the library—with the medical community in order to reach new parents with this crucial message, do you expect to eventually see other communities follow your lead?

The Born to Read program has already been duplicated by St. Louis Public Library. Together, we’re reaching families and promoting early literacy across the St. Louis region.

If you live in the St. Louis area and would like to become a volunteer with the Born to Read program, please contact the Youth Services Department at 314-994-3300.

Author’s note: Born to Read is an American Library Association (ALA) trademarked program that encourages the connection between libraries and health providers. The St. Louis County Library’s program is exceptional in both its implementation and scope.

 

The Critical First Five Years

As much as we’d like to believe that children arrive at school on the first day of kindergarten with comparable reservoirs of potential, the sad reality is this simply isn’t true. From the very beginning of their school lives, the playing field is not even. Children arrive in wide-ranging states of readiness to learn, predetermined by their early language experiences.

Watch this powerful graphic illustration of the impact of the first five years on a child’s future learning trajectory from The Children’s Reading Foundation:

The fact is, children who have been read to regularly come equipped with the critical tools they need for the world of school. Children who lack this experience enter school already behind and, as the video reveals, they rarely catch up.

By reading to our children from birth on, we can build a foundation of literacy skills that will not only enable them to enter kindergarten on day one with joy and confidence, but carry them successfully far into the future.

Gettin’ Jiggy with Reading

 

Think reading affects more than just the language processing parts of the brain? You bet it does.

Fifteen-month old Piper demonstrates what brain scientists have only recently proven to be true. When we read we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us.

According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, “The brain…does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” (“Your Brain on Fiction,” New York Times, March 18, 2012)

When a parent reads stories to a child, the child is not just learning about the world of the story, she is experiencing the world of the story. As we can see from Piper’s reaction, reading is a full-body sensory phenomenon, and it makes her very happy. Her mom and dad are teaching her an invaluable life lesson that will pay huge dividends in her future: reading is a pleasurable, rewarding activity.

It’s clear that there are many other things about books that Piper has already figured out (be sure to check out “What’s in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox?” parts I, II, and III), but the understanding that reading is fun is the most critical lesson of all and the hardest to impart later on.

Learning why we read begins right here, in infancy, in the arms—or legs—of a loving parent.

AAP’s Latest Guidelines for Children and Media

images-6Parenting in the digital age can be challenging and confusing. This week the American Academy of Pediatrics–informed by dozens of studies on screen time and its effect on the emotional and physical health of children–released new guidelines for parents. Here is some of their advice:

  • Children under the age of 2 should avoid all digital media use except for video chatting via apps like Skype and Facetime.
  • If you must introduce digital media to toddlers between the ages of 18 and 24 months, choose high-quality programming and sit with your child. Solo viewing should be avoided.
  • Children ages 2 to 5 years should have no more than one hour of screen use a day. Be sure to select high-quality programming and watch it with your children.
  • Keep bedrooms, mealtimes and parent-child playtime free of screens. (Parents, that goes for you too: Set your phone on “Do not disturb.”)
  • If you have children between the ages of 5 and 18, place consistent limits on their hours per day of media use, as well as the types of media they use.
  • Discourage the use of entertainment media while doing homework.
  • Children of all ages should avoid exposure to devices and screens for one hour before bedtime.
  • Keep smartphones, TVs and other devices out of the bedroom.
  • Communicate the family’s media guidelines to grandparents, babysitters and other caregivers so screen rules are followed consistently.
  • Have an ongoing conversation with older children about online citizenship and safety. This includes treating people with respect online; saying no to cyberbullying and sexting; and avoiding communications that can compromise personal privacy and safety.

To help your family develop a plan that is right for you, visit www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUseplan.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics and Los Angeles Times

Your Baby’s Brain: Wired to Connect

The work of the brain at birth is to begin laying down an internal infrastructure of language that enables the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose—which is to connect.

Watch the drive to connect in action in three month old Piper’s focused alertness and vocalization as her daddy reads The Hungry Caterpillar to her.

According to Susan Brink, author of The Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Nurturing, and Protecting an Infant Through the First Three Months, hearing develops long before birth. The newborn, already accustomed to the sounds of the muffled maternal voice, recognizes and responds to a mother’s voice first. Beyond a mother’s voice, the sounds in a baby’s world are a meaningless din. But here is where the real learning begins.

“…lest anyone think these undifferentiated noises are useless, think again. With an innate skill that would be the envy of a statistics student, newborns are keeping track of probabilities; setting up neural connections in response to the patterns of the words they hear. They are learning where one word ends and another begins before they utter their first da-da.”[i]

Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist and leading expert on speech development at the University of Washington, has discovered that babies are born with the ability to hear the sound distinctions of every language that exists, but by ten months of age—maybe sooner—that ability is lost, “pruned away by a brain eager to cultivate what will be needed and get rid of what won’t.” [ii]

Human babies arrive in this world poised to learn.

At birth, Brink claims, babies possess “…billions of brain cells, or neurons, but little in the way of an internal communication network. Immediately, every interaction with the world–each touch, word, smell, look—helps the baby lay down an infrastructure of dendrites, the branched projections that receive and send signals between neurons.”[iii] The science that enables us to understand that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, is clear and its implications are profound.

But perhaps even more profound than the fact of how soon learning begins is the beautiful metaphor that the brain cell reveals to us, for it organically demonstrates a truth about what it means to be human.

The work of the brain at birth is to begin making connections that enable the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose, to love. As parents it is important for us to understand that learning is a drive organically rooted in a child’s physical being, and its ultimate aim is to create a meaningful life. When we speak, sing, and read to our child from birth, this loving way of engaging builds neural pathways in the brain that become the physical infrastructure for all future learning and loving.

Learning, therefore, is connection, rooted in relationship.

Major religions throughout history have proclaimed a life of love as the highest human calling, and the observations of those who work in hospice care are equally compelling. Paradoxically, death often illuminates what is most important in life, and those who accompany the dying in life’s final stage are privileged to bear witness to their reflections as they look back over their lives. Social worker Grace Bluerock wrote,

“For six years, I had the amazing gift of being able to experience with people their final days and weeks. For most, these last days and weeks were spent looking back over their lives in deep contemplation. Many regrets were expressed, and many tears were shed. As a hospice social worker, I got a front row seat into the lives of those precious souls as they attempted to come to terms with how they spent their time on this earth. Everyone’s story was different, but each held common threads and similar regrets.” [iv]

The number one regret Bluerock observed in the dying during her years of service is that people wished they had loved more deeply. No one dies wishing they had made more money or worked harder. Ironically, at the moment of our departure from life we are perhaps most conscious of the instinct that existed as an unconscious urge from the very beginning—the longing to connect.

Our very purpose is imbedded in the work of our brain cells as we enter the world, and its function is a metaphor for what we as humans are destined to do.

A child’s drive to connect with his parents is important to understand, as it is the foundation for all learning. From birth on, babies are at work making connections and building the mental and emotional infrastructure that will make sense of the world and carry them into life. As parents of a newborn, we are that world, and the primary responsibility to nurture this process is ours. Speaking, singing, and reading aloud honor our infant’s drive to bond with us and nurtures the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry him into future learning and life.

 

[i] Susan Brink. “Through a Newborn’s Senses.” Los Angeles Times, May 11. 2013.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Grace Bluerock. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grace-bluerock/5-most-valuable-life-lessons-i-learned-hospice-worker_b_7499030.html