During story time there’s more happening in children’s brains than you might think. And it's so important that a Northwest Indiana pediatrician provides books in his office for parents, kids and even infants.

“Reading can affect cognition even in newborns, because children can retain what they’re hearing and learning,” said Dr. Usama Moustafa at LaPorte Physician Network Pediatric Care. And when those young children start talking, they have a more advanced vocabulary for their age. A grant from the Healthcare Foundation of LaPorte funds a program providing books for preschool-age kids. “We give the books to them,” said Moustafa.

Studies support this advocacy. Research presented at a 2015 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting showed that reading to young children prompts brain activity that supports early reading skills and oral language. Joann Zona, a speech language pathologist at Ingalls Health System in Harvey, Illinois, said early oral language exposure has lasting effect. “The child begins to recognize the written word … and that promotes language," she said.

Beth Heise, a speech pathologist at Ingalls, began reading to her daughter, Cassady, while she was pregnant with her. Moustafa is all for it. “I think it’s a good idea. There might be some benefits to the fetus, though currently we have no way to measure that,” he said.

Zona notes that babies hear their mom’s voice before they’re born, and Heise said, “Reading out loud to children is essential to their development of vocabulary, language, imagination, all of that.” The report to Pediatric Academic Societies noted that imagination is important as children switch to books without pictures.

Stacy Gordenier, of LaPorte, reads to her 1-year-old son, Eli. “I saw how my sister read to her kids," she said. "And now that they love to read, I want (Eli) to do the same.”

Every day they choose a book to read aloud from Eli’s bookshelf, and Eli is pointing out animals in pictures and elsewhere. He watches while a babysitter uses flash cards for older kids; Gordenier hopes he’ll look forward to that concept for reading.

Zona also points out that reading goes beyond books. “If we focus only on books, people who don’t or can’t read may shy away," she said. “Look at your T-shirt; you know what those words are. If you’re in the car with your kid, you know the word ‘stop.' Read aloud from cereal boxes, baseball cards, a coffee mug.”

She said new initiatives are helping less-verbal families use more words with their infants. That helps close the “word gap” seen between some higher- and lower-income children entering school. “And low-income families may not have books, but do have a cellphone, so they can access apps promoting language interactions, including reading," she said. Moustafa said studies show reading can increase a child’s IQ.

Heise’s daughter is 8 now. “It’s still important to read aloud with her, even though she reads herself,” Heise said, adding that children discern emotions and intonations that way. “Sometimes when she reads to me out loud it may be pretty flat, and I’ll ask, ‘Did you understand what that was about?’

“But also it was such precious bonding time. There’s a closeness and social aspect to reading to your child.”

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