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Illustration by Josef Gast

A Labor of Literacy

New mothers are commonly sent home from the hospital with instructions for breastfeeding and burping their infants. Dr. Ian Bennett CGS’89 GM’01, a clinical instructor in the Department of Family Practice and Community Medicine at Penn’s School of Medicine, is studying the effects of doling out a different kind of advice: how to read to their babies.

A total of 9,000 books are being donated to 3,000 at-risk families as part of the Books for Babies program. Paid for with a $50,000 grant from Verizon Superpages, the program involves the collaboration of the departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Family Practice and Community Medicine; and Obstetrical/Neonatal nursing at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Department of Primary Care and Community Health Services at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy.

“Illiteracy is such a pervasive disability that it impacts on a person’s life in general, including the ability to interact with the health-care community,” says Bennett. “We know the strongest protective factor for kids to not have trouble reading when they start school is to have their parents read to them daily for 15 minutes a day, starting early.”

Mothers in the Books for Babies program receive the first board book and an information packet before they check out of the hospital after their baby’s delivery. Books, and additional counseling, are provided on two other occasions —the infant’s first well-child visit at CHOP and the mother’s postpartum obstetrical exam.

Even if the mother is illiterate, Bennett says, the book can serve as a prop, and she can use its pictures to tell a story. The important thing is “carving out time” between mother and child when “there is language going on.”

“We hope that by the time the child is three or four months old, he or she will actually be interacting with the book and recognizing the book in a meaningful way,” he says. “And we hope that by six months, he or she will have integrated the book as something they like and link the book in a positive way to the parent.”

A child who hasn’t been exposed to books will very likely end up in a remedial reading program and eventually drop out of school, Bennett says, “because of the frustration of not being able to gain information.”

Under an additional grant Bennett will study the link between literacy levels and parental health outcomes, finding out, for example, if the literacy program increases the mothers’ likelihood to attend postpartum exams.

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 7/01/02