Texting is the latest tool to help babies flourish

baby texting

By Daniele Berman, Community Partnerships Manager

(Note: this article originally ran in the Durham Herald-Sun.)

Among the flurry of texts that arrived on her phone shortly after her son’s birth congratulating her and celebrating her new arrival, this one stood out for a new Durham mom recently:

Create a daily reading routine now and see the benefits later. Bedtime stories can be calming and morning reading time is fun because baby is alert and awake.

Nearby, the dad of a three-year-old read this text on his phone:

Children need to know the sounds that make up words. As you read together, clap out the syllables of favorite words. Ex. 1 clap for each syllable in “ba-na-na”

With just a few characters, a support network of tips to promote literacy and school readiness is being laid for families of newborns, babies, and toddlers all across Durham.

Book Harvest’s Book Babies program—which provides home visiting and brand new, age appropriate books to children and families who need them from birth through kindergarten—may be focused on good old-fashioned books. But the program’s literacy enrichments are anything but old fashioned; rather, they are incorporating technology and readily accessible tools to equip parents with easy ways to be their children’s brain builders from birth.

Since early 2015, families enrolled in Book Harvest’s Book Babies program have been receiving regular text messages from their Book Babies home visitors. Currently, 210 families receive the texts biweekly, one focused on a developmental tip and the other a reminder to be reading with their children. A recent text that went to all 206 families read simply “Read aloud for 15 minutes today!”.

“The idea is to provide support to our families because the research has proven that this helps children get ready for kindergarten,” explains Book Babies Team Leader Meytal Barak. Indeed, in working with children in low-income families from birth through kindergarten, a priority goal of the Book Babies program is to help ensure that children are ready for school.

Thanks to what Dr. Dana Suskind refers to as the 30 million word gap in her 2015 book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, children from lower-income families start kindergarten having heard 30 million fewer words than their middle- and upper-income counterparts; as a result, they’re not as prepared to flourish in kindergarten.

Being read to for just 15 minutes a day exposes a child to a million words each year – and researchers such as Dr. Suskind believe, based on evidence, that reading aloud and other efforts to expose children to more words in their earliest years dramatically increases both their kindergarten readiness and their long-term academic outcomes.

Texting is an integral part of the Book Babies program. While making sure families have plenty of books to read is critical, Barak and her team are learning that engaging with families through texting is not only an essential way to communicate about the program, but it is an intervention in its own right. “Even if they don’t do exactly what the text says,” explains Book Babies team member Kenitra Williams, “because it’s a text from Book Babies, it’s a reminder to go read.”

Starting this fall, the content of the early literacy tips will come from a database created by researchers at the Sanford School for Public Policy at Duke University; Christina Gibson-Davis was the principal investigator, and Book Harvest board member and early childhood literacy consultant and educator Christie Cavanaugh wrote the texts themselves.

Explains Book Babies parent Nancy Sauceda, “Book Babies text messages are very important. In this age of technology, it is a positive way to use it and get reminders as parents to be with our children. The texts include great ideas of things to do with our children and ways to experiment with the world around them.”