An unlikely prescription for good health: Read to your kids every day.

Ten million children currently experiencing poverty in the United States don’t have easy access to books. Most children, from all walks of life, don’t have caregivers who make time for shared reading activities. From an early age, children are fascinated by the images and tales that unfold across pages. When a child loses access to those pages, the long-term effects reach far beyond the issue of literacy. Health and family well-being are at stake.

In an era when there’s so much attention rightly focused on the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that reading is a critically important life skill. Reading is an indispensable resource for helping children and adults alike improve mental and physical health. It’s a proven resource for building bonds and enhancing whole-family well-being.

Inside a book, the individual, family and community all intersect and connect. This is why any stakeholder with a vested interest in community health should recognize the value reading brings to a holistic system of care – and the importance of investing in programs that get books into the hands of children and their caregivers.

Books Aren’t Just Good for the Mind

True, reading doesn’t get the heart rate going like riding a Peloton. But settling down with a good book does produce tangible benefits that can make readers of any age healthier and happier.  Even a few minutes of reading a day:

  • Reduces stressResearch has shown that 30 minutes of reading is as effective at lowering acute stress as yoga.
  • Promotes healthy sleep – Experts agree that turning away from screens and picking up a printed book can help people fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly through the night.
  • Reduces depression – There’s a reason “bibliotherapy” took hold more than a century ago as a way to help people address depression: through books, we transport ourselves into other worlds and identify with fictional characters working their way through struggles that might resemble our own. Research has linked reading to positive mental health outcomes such as heightened compassion, awareness, problem solving skills and reduced negativity.
  • Prevents cognitive decline ­– The National Institute on Aging recommends reading as a tool to help older adults maintain mental acuity. In addition, reading a book can help minimize feelings of social isolation.

Literacy Promotes Family Togetherness and Childhood Development

Reading isn’t necessarily a solitary act. It also promotes togetherness. Families that read together grow together, and this can help establish a firm foundation for a child’s long-term well-being and success.

Research shows that family reading time plays an important role promoting early childhood development. The simple act of sharing a story or a poem promotes literacy. It helps children understand how sound generates meaning when we talk, and to recognize the relationship between the written and the spoken word. Reading also builds self-esteem. Learning about other people’s narratives can help children understand their own

When caregivers and children read together, it is a shared experience – one that shouldn’t end when the book closes, either. A good book can provoke healthy conversation, which can strengthen the bond between caregiver and child.

On a recent visit to Fort Bragg, I found myself moved hearing about the success of the “Reading to Little Heroes” program. “Reading to Little Heroes” uses books as a launch pad for dialogue that can help military families through the transitions of reassignment and deployment, and the emotional impact of losing connections with friends.

Why was I so fascinated to learn more about a reading program, which Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) supports? Because I too have experienced the healing power of a book. It might sound silly, but it’s true: at critical moments in my life, I’ve reached out to books for support, and they have never failed to reach back and return the embrace.

It’s worth emphasizing that this activity isn’t just good for the child. Caregivers who engage with children through literature feel a stronger connection as well. For example, one study found that in households headed by adolescent parents, reading out loud reduced maternal depression and encouraged attachment.

Why Providers Are Writing Scripts for Books

Given the wide-ranging benefits of reading to children, it’s no surprise that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that caregivers read out loud to children at least 15 minutes a day.

And yet, one survey found that only 34% of parents were able to meet even this bare minimum. In many cases, a lack of access makes it difficult if not impossible for parents to read to their children. According to the Literacy Project61% of low-income families have no children’s books in the home. By some estimates, cognitive scores for children of low-income families lag behind their wealthier peers by as much as 60 percent. Put simply, not having books in the home increases the chances that children will face increasing academic challenges and dimming prospects for a brighter, more prosperous future.

Increasingly, pediatricians and children’s health clinicians have been playing an active role dedicating time during wellness visits to encourage parents to read aloud to their infants, toddlers and children. Through literacy organizations like Reach Out and Readproviders are “prescribing books” and helping caregivers with limited resources get access to reading materials to share with their children.

Blue Cross NC’s Medicaid program, Healthy Blue, supports our state’s Reach Out and Read affiliate because we know that their engagement with children and families can have a profound impact, especially in underserved communities. Research has shown that Reach Out and Read programs were positively associated with higher vocabulary and reading scores among preschoolers in economically disadvantaged urban communities. Similarly, another study suggests that Reach Out and Read programs instilled a culture of home-literacy among Hispanic households “despite the risks of poverty, low maternal education, and English as a second language.” Tellingly, the low-income students involved in this study “had reading habits more similar to average or high income Americans” following their family’s participation in Reach Out and Read programming.

Where Children and Families Can Find Infinite Possibilities

Sharing a book with a child at an early age better prepares them to live their healthiest, most fulfilling life. Reading can make someone stronger and believe that they can achieve the impossible. It can even help them break out of a cycle of poverty. But this is only possible when children have access to books, and parents and caregivers have support to help them develop the habit of reading aloud.

When I look back on my personal history as a reader, one of my earliest memories is checking out The Monster at the End if this Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Groverwhere everyone’s favorite blue Muppet, Grover, comes to realize that many things that seem big and scary aren’t as bad as we expected.

A lot has happened to me since those early days. My taste in books has evolved, and my own library has grown. So has my inventory of rich life experiences. It’s not surprising to anyone who understands this fundamental truth: reading and life go hand in hand, really.

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