Pediatric program Reach Out and Read aims to strengthen bonds and minds

By Emily E. Smith
August 14, 2023
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The evidence-based program is creating a paradigm shift in children’s health care by showing families the power of reading together.

When Dr. Mary Ann Woodruff enters the exam room for a 6-month-old baby’s well-child checkup, she brings a board book with her—often it’s “Hugs and Kisses” by Roberta Grobel Intrater, whose cover image shows a mother and baby sharing a smooch.

She greets her young patient, who is invariably seated on his parent’s lap. She shows off the book, and the baby stretches his little hands out to grab it.

This is how Woodruff, a regional co-medical director for Reach Out and Read Northwest, begins every well-child visit for children ages 6 months to 5 years.

“It's completely joyful,” she says. “And it changes the attunement you have at that moment in the exam room.”

Reach Out and Read is a science-backed program that addresses multiple aspects of a child’s development—physical, psychological, cognitive, educational and relational—for a holistic approach to wellness. The program provides participating clinicians with carefully selected, age-appropriate books to hand out during well-child visits along with education about reading to children and babies.

Nationally, the program delivers about 6.6 million books each year into the hands of babies and young children, with Reach Out and Read Northwest distributing more than 330,000. Today the program is available at more than 400 clinics throughout Oregon and Washington.

This year, a grant from Regence’s corporate foundation, Cambia Health Foundation, is helping expand the program’s length, so it begins at a newborn baby’s first well-child visit and runs through age 5. The expanded program enables children to receive a new book at every well-child visit, resulting in a total of 14 books. In addition to promoting early literacy, the program fosters positive social connections between parents, children and healthcare providers.

“Reach Out and Read is a powerful program that goes well beyond a simple book giveaway,” said Peggy Maguire, president of Cambia Health Foundation. “The book is a catalyst for a conversation about the importance of reading in relation to healthy childhood development. In addition to the family going home with a new book, they also leave appointments armed with information, tools and resources. It’s an honor to invest in an evidence-backed program that is highly valued and respected among pediatricians.” The investment with Reach Out and Read is part of Cambia Health Foundation’s commitment to whole-person health for children and their families.

Transforming a trip to the doctor’s office

Jessica Mortensen, executive director of Reach Out and Read Northwest, says one reason the program is popular with pediatricians is because it changes the tenor of doctor visits. The patients aren’t there just to endure physical exams and vaccines—they’re also there to receive a book that was personally selected for them.

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“It’s that dynamic of, ‘Welcome, we have a gift for you,’” she says. “It's very human in a lot of ways and more humanizing to have this person-to-person connection be part of it.”

“Reading a book with the kids can reduce anxiety and add fun to a visit to the doctor’s office,” said Dr. Nicole Saint Clair, executive medical director for Regence BlueShield. “It can also create an important way for the pediatrician to connect with their young patients.”

But Reach Out and Read isn’t just good for kids—and it’s not just a book giveaway program.

When Woodruff hands over a book at an infant checkup, she’ll point out for parents how the baby connects with the book: the baby might gnaw on it, or stare intently at the colors or images, or look from the page to their parent’s face to gauge the parent’s reaction.

These small moments are valuable for the pediatrician, providing rich information about how the child is developing. And parents leave with important takeaways because each visit includes guidance on how to make reading not just another task, but a fun, relaxing activity that promotes connection.

The program also aims to drive change in health care by delivering books that are culturally specific and selected for the individual child. The program provides books in 28 languages to accommodate families’ needs. And for children of color, doctors often select books with characters who share the child’s identity.

That personalization helps deepen the relationship between doctors and families. Woodruff hopes it will also help create lasting change in the relationship between the medical field and communities of color.

“Families are the backbone of healthy communities,” she says. “And when we support families from the beginning in the ways that they want, good things happen.”

Creating moments for a lifetime of benefits

While Reach Out and Read serves children from all backgrounds, about two-thirds of participants come from low-income families, where children might not have an extensive book collection.

“It gives them a home library of books—for some, these will be the only books they have,” Woodruff says.

Participation helps prepare kids for the classroom, and studies have shown children in the program have better sound and letter recognition, a bigger vocabulary, better listening skills and a greater understanding of how stories work.

Research also shows families participating in Reach Out and Read are 2.5 times more likely to read with their children, and twice as likely to read with their kids three times or more every week. Participating families are also more likely to report that reading ranks among their children’s favorite activities.

The educational boost kids receive from Reach Out and Read is clear, but the program aims to impart more than literacy benefits. Alongside the language and learning skills children pick up are relational skills, loving bonds and happy moments that can have a powerful effect on a person’s health for years to come.

When caregivers read to children, they’re participating in a caring act of attention and connection—they’re having conversations, snuggling, showing interest and creating special moments that researchers call positive childhood experiences.

“Even in the midst of the worst stresses, these positive childhood experiences are the antidote to the toxic stresses that families and kids can have,” Woodruff says.

These positive experiences provide a buffer against the difficult or traumatic experiences that many children encounter as they grow up, including those known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. They serve to make kids more resilient and better able to cope with hardship. And the earlier these positive experiences begin, the better.  

“We don’t want to wait and figure out the traumas you had as a child when you’re 50 and you have diabetes and heart disease,” Woodruff says. “We want to address it from the beginning.”

Research indicates the joyful moments that Reach Out and Read helps cultivate extend to parents and pediatricians, too. One study, for example, showed that participating in the program reduces maternal depression in young, single mothers. And doctors who participate report less stress and fewer occurrences of burnout.

Woodruff has experienced these results firsthand. As her infant patients grow into toddlers and young children, their excitement for the books she gives them remains infectious. The positivity is palpable.

“Those are magical moments in the exam room,” she says.