Come March, the last books will be distributed to babies and toddlers in Massachusetts when that state’s Reach Out and Read program ceases operation after 30 years of promoting early reading to Bay State children.

Reach Out and Read is the victim of state funding cuts in what we as pediatricians can only see as a short-sighted attempt to save money now at the expense of future generations. Fortunately, a similar program here in Maine – called Raising Readers – remains viable and free from dependence on government funds, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Maine’s Libra Foundation.

We can only hope that common sense will prevail and funding will be found for Reach Out and Read, which was the model for Raising Readers when it was established in 2000.

Launched nearly 30 years ago at Boston Medical Center by Drs. Barry Zuckerman and Robert Needlman and several early childhood educators, Reach Out and Read was an idea that quickly caught on across the country: Doctors and other medical caregivers provided books and advice about reading to children to families at checkups from 6 months until age 5.

Reach Out and Read is based on extensive research that connects early reading to brain and language development, school readiness and educational success in later life. By leveraging the trusted relationship between families and their health care providers, Reach Out and Read pioneered the practice of “prescribing” reading and early literacy activities to families. This resulted in parents and caregivers reading at home more frequently, which research shows accelerates vocabulary development and critical brain stimulation in children.

Raising Readers offers a chance for every child to have a small library of 12 hard-cover books to call their own. Along with receiving books at checkups, parents and caregivers get advice from health care providers on how they can incorporate reading into each day and engage their children in activities that promote brain development.

MaineHealth has led and administered Raising Readers since 2000 in collaboration with Eastern Maine Health System and with support from the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, a member of MaineHealth. The effectiveness of both Raising Readers and the Reach Out and Read model was recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics in a policy statement in 2014, which recommended that pediatricians include early literacy promotion as a core aspect of the care they provide. Among our colleagues, support for early literacy and reading is stronger than for any other aspect of psychosocial care for children.

A few key differences between Reach Out and Read and Raising Readers set Maine’s version of the program apart.

Thanks to the Libra Foundation’s investment, Raising Readers does not rely on state or federal funding to fulfill its mission and is able to provide books at no cost to every medical practice that cares for children.

Recognizing how important it is to begin reading to babies at birth, Raising Readers distributes a beautiful cloth bag full of books to each and every baby that is born in the state through hospitals, birth centers or midwives who attend home births. Then, from 2 months until 5 years, children receive a developmentally appropriate, high-quality board or hard-cover book through their primary care provider at checkups. We’re also proud to report that Raising Readers’ selections feature many Maine authors and illustrators – an extra feature that sets Maine’s program apart.

As doctors (and parents) we know that a foundation for success in life begins at birth and is nurtured by simple, yet powerful acts – reading aloud, singing, talking and playing. Studies have shown that 700 new brain connections are formed each second during the first two years of life, and brain development is 90 percent complete by the age of 3. That is why Raising Readers takes the job of ensuring that Maine children grow up in a home filled with rich conversation, meaningful stories and opportunities to bond with loved ones very seriously.

It is unfortunate that Reach Out and Read is at risk, and we would urge Massachusetts lawmakers to find a way to fund such a critical investment in their children.

At the same time, the bad news out of the Bay State is a reminder to all of us here in Maine of just how fortunate we are to have the Libra Foundation’s generous and forward-looking support for this vital program. Raising Readers is proud to play such an important role in the development of the cognitive, language and social-emotional skills our children need to succeed in school and beyond.

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