Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

If you’re raising a baby or small child, you’ve probably felt pangs of parental guilt coming from some surprising places. And one unfortunate trigger can be the subject of reading to your kids. Some parents beat themselves up for not doing it, while others worry that they don’t read often enough or long enough. (And, let’s face it, when does anything really feel like “enough” for our little charges?) Still others fret if their toddler doesn’t seem to listen, or squirms or wanders off during story time. Many worry that their young ones don’t seem that “into” books—and that it’s their fault.

But pediatrician and reading advocate Dr. Dipesh Navsaria has a reassuring message for parents. It turns out that what matters is interacting with kids and exposing them to books, not fulfilling some unattainable ideal. I’ll share the doctor’s key advice below, but first, a little more about this medical-doctor-slash-reading-advocate. 

While studying medicine at the University of Illinois, he stumbled upon a children’s-book research library on campus. Inspired, he followed his curiosity about young people’s literature all the way to pursuing a master’s degree in library science in the middle of his med-school career. Now he’s a pediatrics professor at the University of Wisconsin and helps parents foster little ones’ language and literacy skills as the founding medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin.

The nonprofit serves 170,000 children and their families via doctors’ offices in 56 counties across the state. Participating pediatricians deliver books to children (more than 250,000 to date!), but even more critical is the support they provide to parents as kids’ first and best teachers. They help ensure that shared reading is an everyday part of young children’s lives and that parents feel capable and confident about reading with their kids, Navsaria says.

Watch my interview with Dr. Navsaria, or read the highlights below, to learn how shared reading contributes to kids’ flourishing—and why read-aloud time is valuable even when it’s squirmy, messy, and short. Plus, you’ll discover how to make the most of pediatrician’s visits and how to refer your child for early-intervention services if you think their development is lagging.

Here are key tips from our conversation:

Keep Reading Time Flexible and Conversational

Giving a child a book during a checkup visit gives doctors a powerful window into a little one’s wellbeing, Navsaria shared—much more quickly and viscerally than rote answers to checklist questions. 

“The toddler who takes that book and toddles over to their parent and holds it out in that read-to-me gesture, they’ve told me a ton,” Navsaria says. “Not only have they told me about the developmental domains (fine motor, gross motor, maybe some language, whatever), they’re also telling me something really important … [about] relational health, the health of relationships.”

So what does that mean for you as a parent? It highlights that when you read with your child, you’re giving them so much more than words on the page. You’re giving them opportunities to explore the physical book itself, to hear the sounds of English (or whatever language you read in), to discover more of the world and the words that describe it, and to engage with an adult who loves them. 

And, wonderfully, those benefits of reading together exist whether your child is sitting still, gazing at the page or not. This message is particularly important for parents of toddlers, who often express concern that their children are wriggly and “don’t like” books. In reality, Navsaria said, it’s usually just toddlers being toddlers, while parents read at them instead of with them

Instead of diligently narrating the text and hoping to capture their attention, Navsaria advises, “pull them into your lap, give them the book, let them turn the page, let them go backwards in the book, pick up random pages, talk about the pictures, ask questions about pictures.”

“It doesn’t matter if you never read the story,” he explains. “I’m not going to ask you to write an essay on it. … When [parents] can deviate from that script and instead just have fun interacting, that works really well with a squirmy toddler, and then when they’re three or four and their attention span is much better, they’re more likely to listen to the book.”

Permission granted to be flexible—and conversational—when reading with littles. 

Elevate Doctor Visits from Check-Ups to Level-Ups

Often parents head into well-child visits at the pediatrician’s office with low to no expectations. They think the child will get weighed and measured and maybe given an immunization. But there’s an opportunity to use those brief engagements to level up your knowledge as a parent, too. 

While doctors have a list of specific items they want to cover during a visit, they also expect and appreciate when parents ask questions or bring up concerns. In fact, Dr. Navsaria says that when he trains pediatricians, he advises that the very first question they ask parents should be, “What questions or concerns do you have for me?” The opening invites the parent into discussion and puts the family (not a visit checklist) at the center of the appointment. 

The leading national pediatrics guidelines, like the Bright Futures and Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics (both on the bookshelf behind Navsaria during our chat), endorse this kind of engagement with families, he says. The guidance encourages doctors to talk to parents about learning, behavior, and development. “Those works tell us about how important it is that we engage with families and discuss all these things and not just things that people might view as traditionally medical,” he says.

If your checkups feel, instead, like you’re being asked a bunch of rapid-fire questions and that’s it, he advises looking for another healthcare provider. 

Trust Your Gut If You Think Your Child is Missing Milestones

If you’ve ever worried that your child was falling behind other kids their age in speech, movement, or some other area, let your pediatrician know. “Tell us what it is you’re seeing,” Navsaria advises. “You don’t need to use the right terminology. Our job is to help piece that together.”

“If a parent comes in and says, ‘I’m concerned about my child’s development,’ that’s almost automatically a reason to refer,” he explains. “Parents spend untold hours around their child. I get to spend a very short amount of time. I have the benefit of having seen thousands of children …. But any individual child, I don’t have a whole lot of time with them.”

Navsaria also explained that if a parent is concerned about their child’s developmental progress and feels they’re not getting proper attention or reassurance from their doctor, they can usually apply directly to state early-intervention services. (See my interview about Birth to Three early intervention services and developmental delays here.) 

So, as you can see, pediatricians can be valuable resources and sounding boards for parents on the raise-a-reader journey. Take this expert’s advice and pair your own observations with your pediatrician’s professional experience to navigate your little one’s next steps in language, literacy, and learning. Staying flexible, asking questions, and trusting your instincts go a long way toward your child’s success.

Reach Out & Read Podcast

To hear more engaging conversations with experts in childhood health and literacy, check out the Reach Out & Read Podcast.

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