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 and thousands of books have been distributed to patients. Incorporation of this important program into pediatric primary care underscores UCM’s commitment to improving child health outcomes and makes it a leader amongst its peer institutions. Readiness for kindergarten and reading by third grade are key health disparity metrics. ROR helps address the language and literacy gaps between low- income and high- income children.

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.

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. “Many parents have commented that the books they receive in our office have become their little ones favorite books. The program provides an opportunity to demonstrate age appropriate conversation with babies and toddlers to enhance their development.”

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.

Melanie Parziale, M.D., is a second-year pediatric resident who takes care of children at Friend Health on Chicago’s South Side. “I love emphasizing literacy in my continuity clinic visits because it lets the kids show me what they know and gives them something to be proud of at the doctor’s office. It’s very rewarding to compliment parents on all they’re doing towards supporting their child’s development."

ROR has other benefits, too. When a child interacts with the book, doctors can assess a child’s developmental skills, family relationships and engagement with community resources.

“Being involved in a program like ROR has been incredibly eye-opening It’s reinforced the importance of involving both a patient’s family and community in their health, “ said medical student and President of the Pritzker SOM ROR Club, Cassandra Daisy. "In medical school we learn a lot about the prevalence of healthcare disparities. ROR actively works to target these disparities.”

Comer ROR partners with vendors which supply 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, 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, specializes in developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

Learn more about Dr. Msall
Niru Mahidhara, MD

Niru Mahidhara, MD, FAAP

Niru Mahidhara, MD, is a general pediatrician and Board Member of Reach Out and Read IL and Medical Director of Comer ROR.

See Dr. Mahidhara's physician profile