Today's guest blogger is Trude Haecker, MD, a pediatrician and the medical director of the Reach Out and Read program at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is also the medical director of Quality Improvement and Departmental Patient Safety Officer at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network.
Jennifer was sitting on her young mother's lap as I entered the exam room with a new infant board book in my hand. She was here for her 9-month check-up. She was not particularly interested in me, but as I opened the book with its bright pictures of animals and began reading a page or two, her eyes lit up and she began patting the book. A gentle smile appeared on her face as she babbled a bit as we interacted around this very simple book. I shared with her mom how smart her baby was and the excitement that I saw in her face . "She can see the pictures and understand my words," I told her. It was a brief bonding moment for the three of us—sharing the experience of watching her amazing infant brain at work.
The human brain is a remarkable organ. Research on early brain development is changing our perspective of infants' capabilities and the rapid progression of development, particularly in the area of speech and language acquisition both receptively (understanding) and expressively (speaking).
Research has shown that a baby as young as six months can link the sound pattern of the word "mommy" and "daddy" to video images of their parents and not to other adults. In fact, infants can detect sounds in their native language preferentially before 12 months of age. Researchers found that infants as young as 12 months who were growing up in poorer families had fallen behind their middle class counterparts in the ability to learn to talk. In fact, the child growing up in poverty may hear millions fewer words at home than a child growing up in a home with a professional family. According to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, investment in the early brain and high-quality early learning is the most effective "return on investment" for disadvantaged youth.
The more we talk to and with infants and young children, the better their language development will be during this time. It turns out that language acquisition in the early years may be a good predictor of later school success. The verbal interaction between an infant and nurturing caregiver is crucial to development, so in fact reading aloud to a young infant can stimulate brain development in a way no passive media such as TV or videos can. Neurons (brain cells) are burgeoning in the first 1,000 days (three years) of life and will in fact be pruned back if a child's caregiver is not interactive and engaging in talking, reading and free play.
While that board book may have been Jennifer's second book from me (through our Reach out and Read program), it will not be her last in our journey together toward kindergarten readiness.