A visit to the doctor and a brand-new book

Jahir Williams, 3, with his mom, Dantasia Greer, right, and pediatrician Niru Mahidhara, Medical Director of Reach Out and Read at UChicago Medicine Comer Children
Jahir Williams, 3, with his mom, Dantasia Greer, right, and pediatrician Niru Mahidhara, Medical Director of Reach Out and Read at UChicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital.

It’s not unusual to see a toddler clutching their very own book after a checkup at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital Academic Pediatric Clinic. That’s because at every well-child visit, from ages 6 months to 5 years, children and their caregivers get a special gift: a new book to read and take home.

Reach Out and Read (ROR) is an evidence-based national program, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, that encourages families of young children to read aloud daily together. Studies have shown that when caregivers and parents incorporate books into a child’s life from a very young age, they expose their child to a broader vocabulary, have more language-rich interactions and improve pre-literacy skills.

“We know that the connections the brain makes in the child’s early years are shaped by the back and forth interactions that parents have with children, starting at birth,” said Niru Mahidhara, MD, Medical Director of ROR at UChicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital. “It’s these interactions during the critical first years of brain development that establish a strong foundation for school success.”

ROR was established at Comer Academic Pediatrics in March 2021, thanks to a $30,000 grant from the Comer Children’s Development Board.

Pediatric clinicians use the books as a catalyst to discuss with parents the importance of reading, back-and-forth communication and limiting screen time. Whether it’s reading the actual story or talking about the pictures, daily reading aloud improves preliteracy skills, increases self-regulatory behavior and promotes parent-child bonding. Parents are reminded that they are their child’s first teacher.

“I’ll walk into an exam room with a 6-month-old and give a board book to the baby, then talk to the parent about using the book to start conversations with their infant,” Mahidhara explained. “If it’s a 24-month-old, I’ll ask her to point to the pictures. I tell parents that they can talk about shapes, colors and objects, and relate the story to the child’s life. We talk about how to read to a child in a developmentally appropriate way.

“The average child will see their pediatrician up to 15 times by age 5. We’re in a unique and privileged position to talk to parents about the important role they play in their child’s development.”

Dantasia Greer and her 3-year-old son, Jahir, were introduced to the program during his most recent doctor’s visit three months ago. “He loves animals and was very happy to receive a book about them that he could take home,” Greer said. “Now, Jahir makes sure that we read a book during bedtime. At any point and time, he can recall things that he has read about and that is so exciting.”

Reach Out and Read also is offered at UChicago Medicine at Ingalls-Flossmoor, under the guidance of pediatrician Megan DeFrates, MD.

The pandemic placed tremendous stress on young parents struggling to find quality time to read to their children while working to support their families, DeFrates said. A $2,500 COVID-19 Relief Ingalls Impact Grant was awarded to support the program. “I am so thrilled to have the support of the Ingalls Development Foundation,” she said. “The money will go to purchasing books for our most at-risk youth.”

ROR also is an important part of medical education. UChicago Medicine pediatric residents participate in the program at Friend Health on Chicago’s South Side. “Residents are trained about the pediatrician’s role in educating families about early brain development, and the impact that reading aloud daily has on their children," Mahidhara said.

Michael Bertenthal, MD, is a second-year pediatric resident who taught first grade literacy with Teach For America for two years before medical school. “I’m particularly interested in ROR because of my background in early childhood education,” he said. “I saw the importance of literacy for a child’s school performance. ROR can help address inequities in literacy outcomes.”

ROR has other benefits, too. When a child interacts with the book, doctors can assess a child’s developmental skills and better understand the relationship between a child and caregiver.

“As a pediatrician, ROR shows that you care for the whole patient,” said third-year pediatric resident Jasmine Thomas, MD. Before medical school, she was a reading tutor in the AmeriCorps program. “It’s a great way to support kids when they go home. I think parents like it because it helps them connect with their kids.”

Comer ROR partners with several vendors, including Chicago nonprofit Young, Black & Lit, which supplies books that reflect, celebrate and affirm the experiences of Black children. “The Department of Pediatrics is taking an active role in supporting the campaign for social equity, including distributing books that help facilitate conversations about our multicultural world,” Mahidhara said. “It shows how committed we are to supporting the communities that surround UChicago Medicine.”

Michael Msall, MD, Chief of the Section of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, became familiar with Reach Out and Read early in his career. He saw in his work with vulnerable families that children in the program had less language delays, were more developmentally competent, and had easier bedtime routines. “You can do this with kids with developmental delays, autism, language delays. You can also do this with children who were born preterm, who had seizures, or who required major surgeries. The program gives us the structure and engagement, it’s parent-directed and kids benefit from the parent-child interaction.

“We’re always figuring out strategies to support learning and help with information, to bridge the supports that families need to help their kids understand the world better,” he said. “I’m so glad our team at Comer is prioritizing this — it’s so very important.”

To learn more about ROR, visit reachoutandread.org.

Megan DeFrates, MD

Megan DeFrates, MD

Megan DeFrates, MD, is a general pediatrician providing comprehensive primary care for infants, children and adolescents in an outpatient setting. She has a particular focus on nutrition and breastfeeding. 

Learn more about Dr. DeFrates
Michael Msall, MD

Michael Msall, MD

Michael Msall, MD, is Section Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at UChicago Medicine. 

Learn more about Dr. Msall
Niru Mahidhara, MD

Niru Mahidhara, MD

Niru Mahidhara, MD, is a general pediatrician with more than 20 years of experience, primarily in community pediatrics.

See Dr. Mahidhara's physician profile