Reading important to child's health, development - Albuquerque Journal

Reading important to child’s health, development

Editor’s note: Today we begin a new chapter in the “Your Child’s Health Column.” Dr. Lance Chilton, who wrote the column for the past 16 years, has formally retired from writing and has passed the torch to three Albuquerque doctors, who will rotate writing the column: Dr. Vernat Exil, Dr. Melissa Mason and Dr. Anjali Subbaswamy.

The three plan to write columns answering questions about obesity, exercise, heart health, vaccines, breastfeeding, diabetes, bullying and many other topics. The focus will remain on issues that are of interest to New Mexico families. The emails to send questions will be listed at the bottom of each column.

Today’s column is by Dr. Vernat Exil.

During a recent cardiology clinic visit, a couple asked me, when should they start reading books to their baby? My immediate answer was “before they are born.”

They then apologized, because the clinic visit was for their child’s heart condition. I asked them not to apologize. I am a cardiologist by training, but first and foremost a pediatrician.

While pediatric cardiologists take great interest in a child’s heart condition, they are also concerned with a child’s growth, and child’s ability to read, play, learn and graduate. During my early years of training in Pediatrics at Boston University, Dr. Barry Zuckerman, a prominent pediatrician, emphasized to all of his trainees that books and reading should be a part of the standard care that doctors provide.

While writing this column, I came across several papers addressing early learning and brain development in the womb. A baby’s brain does not wait for the day of birth to start developing or learning new things. So, it is possible to imagine that when a father takes time to read to their child before birth, he is participating in an activity that helps stimulate his baby’s brain development.

Reading to a baby early helps him or her do better in school and in life. Even for parents who cannot proficiently read, there is data to suggest that flipping through a picture book and pointing out images, colors and shapes will heighten reading interest in a child.

A recent scientific study conducted by Dr. John S. Hutton at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, used MRI scan to assess changes in the brain during reading time. The investigators showed that reading stories stimulates a side of the brain that helps with mental imagery, understanding and language processing in preschool children. So, perhaps reading to babies in the womb will also stimulate specific sides of the brain.

For busy parents, finding time to read with their child can be a challenge. Additionally, lack of access to books can represent true impediments for many families. There are several ways for families in our local community to access books. Not only does the Albuquerque Public Library have a great children’s book collection, free books are available in several pediatric practices as part of the Reach out and Read program. Making reading a routine is one of the most important activities parents can do with babies, before and after birth. Early reading helps with early learning.

At the end of my visit with the family, I was happy to tell them that their baby’s heart was doing well. I also took the time to let them know that it was always good to ask your pediatricians questions. Pediatricians will always take time to answer or they will refer you to someone who can better address your concerns.

In an early column, Lance Chilton raised the question “Why do pediatricians like to answer questions?” And he answered: “That’s what we do best, and we’re anxious to help New Mexico’s children, beyond the walls of our practices.”

We hope that readers of this column will continue to ask questions about what concerns them the most about the well-being of their children.

Vernat Exil, M.D., is a Pediatric cardiologist at UNM. Please send your questions to him at


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