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By Dr. Elizabeth Sugarbaker 

Medical director, Reach Out and Read at SSM Cardinal Glennon

Put down the party dresses and the pajamas. Forget about the sweaters. Set aside the snowsuits and the sneakers.

Pick up a picture book – the holiday gift that’s sure to fit any child.

Recent reports have catapulted picture booksand their alleged demiseinto the news. Several reasons were cited: Parents are pushing their children into chapter books well before it’s time. Picture books are too expensive to produce. Young adult fiction is exploding.

Behind all of the buzz, one fact remains: Picture books have an important and irreplaceable role in countless facets of a child’s development.

At Reach Out and Read, a picture book is what our doctors give to young children at every checkup, beginning at 6 months old. The book exposes the baby to pictures, to sounds, to the concept of holding a book and turning pages, to the notion of turning the pages. Picture books often are made from multiple textures and materials perfect for grabbing and touching. Incredibly, our doctors can also monitor the baby’s cognitive, emotional, and social development by her reaction to the book.

Picture books serve an important purpose in gradually getting her to name familiar pictures, fill in words in familiar stories, develop the habit of reading to her dolls and stuffed animals -- and eventually move toward retelling stories, letter recognition, and reading.

Beyond introducing children to words and sounds, picture books also help them develop a number of fine motor skills.

When parents push their children into walking, they’re discouraging important development of the arch in the palms that comes from crawling. The same idea holds true for pushing children into chapter books.

Over the last two decades, Reach Out and Read’s doctors have developed an expertise about more than just the importance of picture books. They also know which picture books are best suited for which developmental stages.

For example, the picture books we give out to infants often are filled with other babies’ faces – which capture the attention of infants who find it difficult to grasp complicated illustrations. These faces encourage babies to imitate expressions and teach them about their surroundings.

As a parent and a pediatrician, I know that high quality picture books are often expensive, so I encourage all parents to take advantage of the local public library– where picture books are plentiful and free. Introduce your own children early, and think ahead to the joy that will come with a first library card.

Picture books aren’t forever, of course. As the baby grows, so do the books. The picture book is at the start of what’s hopefully a long and beautiful love of reading.

Nurture that love this holiday season.

For a list of doctor-recommended books for children, click here.

Dr. Elizabeth Sugarbaker is a pediatrician and the medical director for Reach Out and Read at SSM Cardinal Glennon. For more on Reach Out and Read, visit www.reachoutanderead.org.


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