By Marianna Glusman, MD
What words do you think of when you look at a newborn? Maybe adorable, sweet, frail, cute, tiny, sleepy, and exhausting come to parents’ minds. I’ve been a pediatrician for over two decades, but I’m also a mother, and I remember well those early days, looking at my daughter’s impossibly small fingers, carefully supporting her unsteady head, and thinking how weird it was that they were letting me take this baby home. I’m sure other words I had in mind then included amazing and terrifying.
Abby was six months old when I started my pediatrics residency, and none of the books that I’d studied as a medical student prepared me to be a mother. I learned how to be a doctor and a mom at the same time. And having Abby taught me a very important lesson: Doctors’ advice can be… overwhelming… that’s the word!
I started reading to Abby when she was a little baby. I read to her because she loved it, and because lying in bed with her felt so sweet and soothing after those punishingly long shifts at the hospital. As we read and talked about the pictures in the books, the number of her words grew and grew, and she amazed me with her ability to learn. I didn’t know it at the time but reading aloud is one of the most important things that parents can do to help their children succeed in both the short and long term. I now know that the back-and-forth communication between babies and their caregivers is crucial in reinforcing the brain pathways involved in language and cognitive development. That’s why my favorite words when I’m talking to parents these days are talk, read, sing, and play.
That is the message of my new book for babies and those who care for them, I Love You Like Sunshine: How Everyday Play and Bedtime Stories Grow Love, Connections, and Brainpower. Babies don’t just absorb language like sponges. They need to be active in their learning, and nothing–not tablets, phones, TVs, or even with educational programming–can substitute for a loving caregiver. Interaction is the key ingredient in children’s development, starting as early as birth. I Love You Like Sunshine is a book to share with your baby, as you read the poem and talk about the beautiful portraits (taken by my mom, a retired pediatrician and photographer). Along the margins you’ll find “Things to know,” “Things to try,” and “Things to notice” as you read together. You don’t need expensive toys or gadgets to help your baby’s brain grow. Follow your baby’s cues, have conversations (even if they often feel one-sided), rest and get help when you can, and enjoy being together.
My Abby is now a teacher. In a few years she may be a mom. I have two last words to share with you: Time flies.
Dr. Mariana Glusman is a literacy advocate and pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, who has worked at Lurie’s Children’s Uptown Primary Care Clinic for more than 20 years. She serves as the medical director of the Illinois chapter of Reach Out and Read, a national program that brings literary education into pediatric practice. She’s proud to participate in the Ounce of Prevention Fund’s #ShareYourWords campaign to spread awareness of the importance of talking to your infant. Here’s a video of Dr. Glusman sharing her favorite word: