Reading aloud to a child from an early age can be a vital tool in boosting their early development. Even by the age of two, substantial gaps in skills can emerge between children from different backgrounds – gaps which follow them well into their adult lives.

So when should parents start doing it? According to experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, you should begin from birth. The trouble is, though, a baby’s first six months can be pretty overwhelming for parents. The number one concern is keeping the baby healthy, and messages about early literacy can pile on more pressure.

“How do you not feel like you’re behind already?” said Maureen Maycheco, Communications Director at Reach Out and Read Colorado, a nonprofit which uses healthcare providers to prescribe books to approximately 125,000 preschool children around the state, predominantly from low-income families (article on

Maycheco and her colleagues realised that reaching parents during pregnancy, a stage of information gathering, could be a more powerful way of improving early literacy. In April 2018, they launched a pilot: the New Parent Empowerment Initiative (NPEI).

Empowering parents

NPEI uses prenatal care appointments to educate and encourage expectant mothers, getting them into the habit of reading to their child. During an appointment, they are given an interactive storybook called “A Story About Reading,” – published in English and Spanish – which includes content on brain development, early literacy and stress management.

Health and social care providers can walk through the tool with mothers, and it “allows them to laugh and talk, and generate a better bond because it’s not so prescriptive,” said Maycheco.

“While there is evidence suggesting reading to an unborn child can have benefits, the greater value of the program is instilling a culture of reading in the young family from birth.”

The key to NPEI has been to create messaging based on parents’ strengths. Early literacy books fail to “tell parents that they are enough,” said Maycheco. The program reinforces the message that “what you’re doing is great,” she said, and “your baby loves you.”

Instead of prescribing how many minutes a parent should be reading to their child, the book uses positive numerical targets. “You’re getting the hang of it!” it says at the end of one section. “You just read 326 words out loud to your baby.”

Reaching out

The distribution has been more difficult than in the main Reach Out and Read Colorado program – which uses paediatricians in health centre appointments – due to the diversity of professionals working in the prenatal space, from nurses to social workers. In spite of this, they have already worked with over 2,500 expectant mothers, in eight clinics and through 22 mobile nurses.

The pilot is being evaluated based on how much it has positively shaped parents’ knowledge and behaviours associated with reading aloud during pregnancy. Draft results soon to be published show promising results from participating mothers, though from just 100 mothers’ feedback. 78 of them reported they read aloud to their babies, and 70 agreed that reading aloud while pregnant helps a baby’s development. The program needs to continue expanding, gaining feedback and gathering long-term evidence to prove impact, said Maycheco.

“Reading stories to a baby in the womb could prove to be much more significant than you might expect.”

While there is evidence suggesting reading to an unborn child can have benefits, the greater value of the program is instilling a culture of reading in the young family from birth. Although it’s difficult to measure, the socioeconomic achievement gap is believed to be closely related to the early childhood learning environment in the home.

Reading stories to a baby in the womb, therefore, could prove to be much more significant than you might expect.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter