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Initiative asks parents to Talk with Me Baby
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A student who can’t read on grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate by the age of 19 than a child who reads proficiently by that time, a 2011 study by the American Educational Research Association revealed. Yet, alarmingly “Get Georgia Reading” says that 64 percent of third-grade students are not reading proficiently.

That’s why the state-wide initiative “Talk with Me Baby” has been launched.

The initiative was launched in Newton County on Tuesday at the Newton County Public Health Department. Partnered with the Newton County Library System, the initiative teaches parents how to talk lovingly to their children and provides resources and books for reading to them.

“The program [encourages] early literacy in children and language and brain development,” said Sarah Neale, Master of Public Health, Certified Health Education Specialist at Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale (GNR) County Public Health Department. “We started the program and we wanted to have a big kick-off day [announcing] that we’re doing this in our centers.”

Parents coming into the public health department for the WIC program can take advantage of the “Talk with Me Baby” initiative. According to Jennifer Wofford, WIC Program Operations for GNR County Health Department, the program was moved under WIC because in dealing with a lot of children 5-years and younger, that is the department that is most often the first point of contact.

“What was exciting about it,” said Wofford, “was getting parents excited about talking to their children. It’s kind of a general assumption that you know how to do that, but it’s not necessarily the case.”

Language nutrition

“’Talk with Me Baby’ is a language nutrition program,” Wofford said.

“Just as healthy food nourishes a growing baby’s body, language nutrition nourishes a baby’s brain,” it says on the “Talk with Me Baby website at “Both the quantity and quality of nourishing language are critical to healthy brain development.”

Designed to bridge the 30 million word gap between children from high-income families and children from low-income families, the initiative trains nurses to educate and coach expecting and new parents about why and how to talk with babies. A language nutrition curriculum and training materials are provided to WIC nutritionists to use with their clients.

“There is a curriculum method called, ‘I do, you do, we do,’” Neale said. “It starts with the clinician, who demonstrates [talking lovingly to children]. ‘Look, I’m talking and directly engaging this child.’ Then they bring in the parent and say, ‘Let’s do this together.’ Then [the clinician] asks the parent to ‘Show me how you do it.’”

Diane Shelton, Nutrition Services Director said 85 percent of brain growth occurs in the first three years of life. “We decided to [give away books] as one of the incentives to get parents reading to their kids. That’s one of the ways they talk to children.”

Other ways include singing to them, narrating actions taken or thoughts during the day and describing items picked up or colors seen while grocery shopping.

Partnering with the library

Neale said it made sense to ask the Newton County Library System (NCLS) to partner with them.

Lace Keaton, NCLS Director said when the Health Department called to ask if the library would partner with them, “we said ‘absolutely.’

“Children who have a good vocabulary by kindergarten do better in school,” she said. “The library has a program, ‘B4,’ which encourages children to read or parents to read to them 1,000 books before they start kindergarten so they go into kindergarten ready to read.”

The library provides online and physical resources for parents. As long as the person checking out the material has a valid library card, they can check out 50 items at a time, Keaton said. “When they come in, we have a children’s area in all three of our locations,” Keaton said.

She said Galileo and the Georgia Public Library Service provide patrons with access to the Tumble Book Library, which is an ebook library that can be accessed by computer, tablet or smartphone. The library has around 250 books online that come with narration for children.

It doesn’t matter how reading material is presented, Keaton said. The only thing that matters is reading to them “as often as they can, at least once a day,” she said. “Any way you read to them, anything that’s interesting to them – it doesn’t make a difference what it is. Just get them involved in reading.”

The Talk with Me Baby originated in Georgia. In 2014, the initiative was recognized by the White House.

Other partners for the initiative include the Newton County Community Partnership, Marcus Autism Center at Emory Center, Emory University, the Georgia Department of Education, United Way and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.